David Sedaris brought his wit and charisma to an eager crowd at the Arlington Theatre last Friday. The noted American humorist read selections from his latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, as well as newer works the author has been working on throughout his tour.
The longest of these stories was about striving for his father’s approval in the field of competitive country club swimming. The structure was simple enough but, as with most of Sedaris’ work, it took its subject and used it as a microcosm for family relationships.
Sedaris opened the show with the titular story from Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiality, which focuses on a chipmunk forced to abandon a squirrel lover when her mother hears the squirrel likes jazz, which she labels as “disgusting” without knowing it is actually a kind of music.
The story is partially about miscommunication but it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves about lost love. The squirrel and the chipmunk have nothing in common in their youth, but in her later years the chipmunk romanticizes the lover to whom she had nothing to say, eventually imagining jazz as every beautiful thing in the world.
Many of Sedaris’ stories function in this way, leading the readers down one entertaining path before plunging them into reflections on the nature of humanity and of love.
The swimming story, which focused on Sedaris’ time on the swim team of the Raleigh Country Club — a club that did not admit Jews and allowed other minorities to attend only as hired help (turns from a tale of his father’s disapproval “You know what you are? A big, fat zero,”) into a contemplation of his often fraught but loving relationship with a dad that humors just as much as it horrifies.
Sedaris strikes a chord with most American relationships in this way: the striving of the son for the father’s affection, and the continual falling short. It is not because Sedaris’ father is so horrible that he draws laughs (alright, it is), but rather because he reminds us of our fathers, and the constant failings that we have to reconcile in the formation of a healthy relationship.
Sedaris continued by reading entries from his diary, musings that ranged from a few sentences to almost complete short stories. The most humorous of these centered on waiting in line for coffee behind an obnoxious couple in a Connecticut town. To those close enough to see him, it was clear Sedaris was work shopping his stories as he read at his podium, holding a pencil in his hand and marking the page every time he drew a laugh. He admitted as much in the question session following the talk, saying he has worked and reworked the swimming story many times since going on tour.
As he does each time he goes on tour, Sedaris recommended a book. This time it was Tobias Wolff’s The Barracks Thief, which is about a group of soldiers bonding before being sent off to war. Sedaris recommended the book highly, saying, “I’d buy this before I’d buy anything I’ve written. It’s a much better book.” He joked that Wolff’s stories and the Coen Brothers’ films are the only things keeping him from killing himself.
Listening to Sedaris speak is like going to see a great standup comedian — at times, he could not be heard over the audience’s gales of laughter. Particularly dedicated fans stayed for up to two hours after the show to talk to him and have him sign their books. The writer could be heard asking random questions like, “What time are you waking up tomorrow?” and “What do you wear to bed?” New material for another outrageous book of absurdities and insights, no doubt.