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Where’s Gretchen?

In David Sedaris’ latest book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, readers get plenty of updates about the other Sedaris siblings. Younger brother Paul, for instance, marries and fathers a baby — everyday stuff — and becomes the subject of two chapters. Famously highlighted in Sedaris’ last essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, the endearingly foulmouthed Paul (aka “The Rooster”) is again prominently featured in Corduroy and Denim (Little, Brown and Company, 2004).

Following his beachside wedding to hairdresser Kathy, Paul calls David to inform him he has impregnated his new wife. Realizing that the couple has only confirmed the conception with an at-home pregnancy test, Sedaris advises his younger brother to wait to spread the news till they’re sure. He writes: “The fetus was minute — a congregation of loitering cells — and as with anything that informal, there was a good chance that it might disperse. … [But] what I considered a reasonable degree of caution he dismissed as ‘nay-sayery.'” Paul elucidates: “‘I’ll chain its ass down if I have to, but ain’t no baby of mine going to forsake the womb.'”

Meanwhile, Lisa, as the new book notes, stays happy with her birds. Boston-based Tiffany has, inexplicably and depressingly, morphed into an eccentric pack rat. There’s not much on Amy in the new book. But those who don’t know her from Sedaris’ past essays — she was the sister who arrived home wearing a fat suit under her clothes, to the deluded dismay of her old-fashioned Greek-American father — may have seen her onscreen. An actress and playwright, Amy has had bit roles in many movies, and was the star of the cultish Comedy Central program Strangers With Candy.

Past the boiling point

So why do we never hear about Gretchen? That’s what I wanted to know when I phoned Sedaris recently at a hotel in Omaha.

Though currently on tour stateside, Sedaris continues to live with his long-time partner, Hugh, in Europe. Half of Me Talk Pretty One Day was, of course, devoted to Sedaris’ sorry attempts to learn French. In the same book, readers got the last significant mention of Gretchen, the sister who long ago went off to the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving a jealous, pre-Santaland Diaries David behind to briefly dabble in his own talent-free, speed-fueled performance art.

Her absence is conspicuous. Her brother, after all, is the writer who, in a New Yorker essay last fall, turned a particularly tragic inanity — the midnight lancing of a boil on his butt, to be exact — into sweet, thoughtful stuff. So even if Gretchen, a painter, doesn’t provide the same bulk of humor-mill grist as, say, Paul; or as the siblings’ wittily pessimistic late mother, Sharon, who dominates all of Sedaris’ books; or even as much as a festering abscess on one’s bottom, why does she never get page time?

“She doesn’t tell me not to write about her,” Sedaris declared in our talk, delivering his words in that sly elfin rasp any NPR fan knows.

“There are so many good stories about Gretchen,” he went on to say. “But Gretchen’s stories all involve secrets. And I would never give away anybody’s secrets.”

Sedaris did, however, unburden one of his own. He says he’s never regretted exposing the idiosyncrasies of his family members to a global audience — but he does wish he could re-do Me Talk Pretty‘s memorable portrait of his French teacher, a passionate woman inclined to stabbing errant students with pencils. Sedaris says he later found out that his teacher had been defending Eastern European students in her class, nannies who’d come to France for work.

“If you’re a nanny, there are rules — you’re only supposed to work certain hours per week,” he explains. “And these people were being exploited like crazy.

“Listening to someone who’s been taking French for [only] three weeks is torture — but she really went out of her way to help [the nannies]. I wish I had said that in the story. I think I hurt her feelings.”

Interestingly, the recollections in Corduroy and Denim ring a little more affectionately than those in past Sedaris books. The new essays show dazzling craft — they’re engulfingly funny, airtight, as full and bright as glass eyes. But a new, reflective complexity does skulk in unawares. The author wonders whether Paul’s infant daughter will remember her father’s early devotion to her — “all the nights she awoke to discover him: this slob, this lump, this silly drooling toy asleep at her feet.” The piece on Tiffany ends with David on hands and knees scrubbing his sister’s filthy apartment, in his eyes “saving her life.”

Sedaris concedes that, at a certain point, he realized he could “get the laugh” — but then wondered “what would happen if I got rid of that laugh.”

He says: “I proved to myself that I can get it. That’s fine — but then I said to myself, ‘See if you can live without it.'”

To thine own selfishness be true

Still, Sedaris balks just short of sentimentality, declaring, “That’s a bad word.” It’s a balance he recently restored to an essay in one of the 24 foreign translations of Corduroy. The author reveals that his Israeli translator had a little problem with the last line of “Possession,” a piece in which Sedaris admits coveting the Anne Frank House.

Taking a day off after an extended apartment-buying hunt, David and Hugh visit the popular tourist site, where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years during World War II before being betrayed and deported to concentration camps. Sedaris writes: “We entered the annex behind the famous bookcase, and on crossing the threshold, I felt what the [real estate agent] had likened to being struck by lightning, an absolute certainty that this was the place for me. That it would be mine. The entire building would have been impractical and far too expensive, but the part where Anne Frank and her family had lived, their triplex, was exactly the right size and adorable, which is something they never tell you.”

His delight holds until he happens to see a sobering quote by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, written in large letters across a wall in the house. Chastened, Sedaris thinks briefly about the still-unknown person who exposed the hiding family, “wondering who could have done such a thing.” Caught in this reverie, he glances out the window. Suddenly spying an even better place than the Franks’ digs, he’s jerked back to the selfish present. “Then … across the way, I spotted the most beautiful apartment,” is how Sedaris wraps up the piece.

The Israeli translator, apparently wanting the essay to end reverently, suggested cutting out all commentary after the Levi quote. But Sedaris says he resisted.

“Too earnest,” he protests. “That would suggest that I learned a permanent lesson.”


David Sedaris will share excerpts from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 1. Following the sold-out reading, doors will open again to the public for a book signing at 8 p.m. 254-6734.

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