Books: Sedaris family values

NAKED by David Sedaris Indigo pounds 7.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GROWING UP gay can be excruciating and confusing but, in his latest book, the young New York writer David Sedaris turns all this pain to our pleasure. Naked is a comic autobiography, told through a series of short stories, that starts with Sedaris the young boy and his uncontrollable nervous tics and a heartfelt passion for a tidy home and ends with Sedaris the adult, anxious about uncovering his unexercised body at a nudist camp, and with his childhood tics still waiting in the wings.

Although a certain camp gay sensibility informs the text, the book has many other themes, from being a child snob to having a Greek grandmother. And, while most books with a gay story-line have an affirming message to impart, Naked's only conclusion seems to be appreciate your mum, smoke dope, do battle with your sister, and never work as a fruit picker.

David Sedaris has already enjoyed critical success, especially in the US, with his first book Barrel Fever, a collection of short stories about his chaotic hand-wringing life. The best of these tales was "Santaland Diaries", a hilarious account of his time spent working as an elf in Macy's Christmas Grotto.

Sedaris can deftly switch between violent humour, an unhealthy interest in psychopaths and an almost touching sentimentality. He even manages to provoke empathy for his often self-induced plight as he reveals, and revels in, his family rite of passage and the looming knowledge that, no matter how he tries to dodge it, he's going to turn out gay.

The scenarios in Naked are only extraordinary because they are played out in extremis and you laugh because they contain flashes that you recognise from your own life. When the young Sedaris discovers a pornographic novel hidden in the woods (similar magazines were as common as toadstools in the copse near my home), it's not the pictures that shock him but the innumerable typos: "Had nobody bothered to proofread this book before sending it to print?" The dirty book passes between his brothers and sisters until "The phrase 'Tight Willin' gasshole' was growing more popular by the day, and even our ancient Greek grandmother was arriving at the breakfast table with suspicious-looking circles beneath her eyes."

Many of the shorter short stories read like newspaper columns, rants against pet hates. "The Women's Open" for example scores a hole in one against golf (Sedaris lampoons his father for wearing Day-Glo trousers "patterned with singing tree-frogs or wee kilted Scotsmen ... Highway workmen wore such shocking colours so that motorists could see them from a distance. It made sense for them, but what perils did golfers face?"); while "The Drama Bug" is an eloquent explanation of why it is highly dangerous to let your children get involved with amateur dramatics.

He describes how, after an actor came to perform at his school, he developed an affectation for speaking in mock-Shakespearean English. His mother, convinced he must be high, "spent the next day searching my dresser for drugs. The clothes I took pride in neatly folding were crammed tight into their drawers with no regard for colour or category." Sedaris responds by "quilling her a letter" (he ties a feather to the shaft of his ball- point pen) telling her that "The thing that ye search for so desperately resideth not in my well-ordered chamber, but in the questionable contents of thine own character."

You rapidly move through Sedaris's adolescence, his attempts to rebel, his friendships with a series of people with extreme disabilities (who all come across as rounded, and as well-mocked, as all the fully abled characters), his attempts at work (including a spell picking apples), the death of his mother, his accidental liaisons with men who are clearly wannabe serial killers, and, finally, you end up following him as he attempts to look relaxed at a nudist camp.

This final story, Naked, is a stunning piece of journalism (no doubt with a large element of fiction injected). Read it to discover how the "absence of clothing made it very hard to describe people. You couldn't say, 'Who's the uncircumcised gentleman with all the hair on his ass?" And look forward to meeting the woman "who had shaved all her pubic hair except for a brief, Hitler-style moustache. The exposed, lotion-coated vagina resembled one of those shiny plastic coin purses given away by banks and car dealers and carried only by the very young or very old. The phrase, keep the change, came to mind."