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David Sedaris has an unmistakable voice -- high, reedy and more than a little bit mischievous, it leaps out at you on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," where he is a semi-regular commentator. (He's the only soul who doesn't seem to be drowning in a Sargasso Sea of Sincerity.) Unlike most of NPR's on-air personalities, Sedaris' voice translates to paper. His first book, Barrel Fever (1993), was a memorably prickly collection of autobiographical comic essays. The book's best piece, "The SantaLand Diaries," detailed Sedaris' experiences as a disgruntled elf in a Macy's Christmas tableau -- it's become a minor classic of holiday fear and loathing.
Sedaris' second collection, Naked, contains a similar amount of odd, confessional whimsy. Many of the pieces here are based on Sedaris' memories of his suburban childhood in North Carolina, and they combine an almost David Lynchian strangeness with the plucky wit of Evelyn Waugh. In "Next of Kin," he writes about how, after he finds a cheesy porn novel in the woods, his entire family winds up devouring it. ("A veil had been lifted, especially for Gretchen, who now saw the world as a steaming pit of unbridled sexuality.") In "A Plague of Tics," Sedaris describes how his multiple childhood compulsions made it almost impossible for him to get out of the house. ("After kissing the fourth, eighth, and twelfth carpeted stair, I wiped the cat hair off my lips and proceeded to the kitchen, where I was commanded to stroke the burners of the stove, press my nose against the refrigerator door, and arrange the percolator, toaster, and blender into a straight row.") Other essays here offer even more absurd comedy: A piece called "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" recounts the time Sedaris' sister brought a prostitute home for the holidays. The title story is about his experiences at a low-budget nudist colony.
While none of the pieces here is as devilishly cranky as "The SantaLand Diaries," Naked is ultimately a stronger and more grounded book than Barrel Fever. That's because Sedaris digs deeper into his subjects here, and some of the best essays combine shrewd observation with some genuinely affecting subject matter. In a fairly miraculous piece called "The Women's Open," Sedaris writes about his sister's first period, which occurs on a public golf course. (Their befuddled, hapless father sends the poor girl off for "help" with the first woman he sees.) And an essay titled "Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!" contains some bracing writing about visiting his grandmother at her final nursing home: "Unlike her former home, Mayview made no attempt to disguise the inevitable. There was no talk of one's well-deserved golden years, no rented buses or craft carnivals."
Sedaris is already a noted playwright -- he and his sister Amy write comedies under the name The Talent Family -- and word is he's at work on a novel. I'll be among those in line to buy it. -- Salon