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Book Review: Sedaris' wit entertains at Byham

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

For one night at least, David Sedaris was the funniest man in America -- if Sunday's sellout and thoroughly entertained crowd at the Byham was any indication.

Sedaris is truly an elfin figure, a little guy in a rumpled short-sleeve shirt, clumsily knotted tie and white socks, an ensemble perhaps assembled from the Goodwill men's department, but being an elf is what made him famous.

His "SantaLand Diaries," both the monologues on National Public Radio and the popular book, told the story of his career as one of Santa's helpers at Macy's Department Store during the holiday season.

One will never look at Christmas "traditions" in quite the same way again.

With his faintly nasal deadpan delivery, Sedaris seems like an ordinary person, a little weird, but on the surface, ordinary.

He is not, of course. His little stories, drawn largely from his family experiences, are in turn hilarious and bitter, witty, insightful and drenched in disappointment.

He is one of life's true outsiders, a Northerner transplanted to the South, a gay man in a society of male role models, a sensitive soul in a dumb culture.

Sunday's stories were a mix of dumb culture (the role of St. Nikolas in Holland) and the heartbreak of his family's quirky pain which, he freely admits, he exploits.

One time, sitting with his sister Lisa in her car as she sobbed inconsolably, Sedaris admitted he reached for his notebook to take it all down.

"If you write about this, I'll never speak to you again," cried his sister, but that plea hardly seemed to discourage the writer.

"I'm just the friendly junk man," Sedaris said. "I take pieces of junk and make my stories out of them."

Some of the junk includes his father's embarrassing behavior and his various sisters' fondness for pets ranging from dogs to rare flesh-eating turtles.

Yet, despite the wrenching poignancy of his family's struggles, Sedaris manages to let us know that even at our worst, we're only human -- and thus forgivable.

While he stuck doggedly to his written texts, Sedaris proved to be sharp and funny in the unscripted question session which followed.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust sponsored his appearance.

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