An iconoclast with a sense of humor

Everyone has a favorite David Sedaris piece. Mine, I don’t mind saying, is the essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” in the collection of the same name. Just like everyone else who claims to love Sedaris (we were unable to procure a single disgruntled reader for this piece), my reasons are personal. Something about trying to learn French, which, if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about just now.

Sedaris is 51. He’s flown to L.A. from Paris -- where he lives with Hugh Hamrick, a painter and Sedaris’ partner since 1990 -- for a party given by the New Yorker in Salman Rushdie’s honor and to begin the book tour for his new collection, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” I have thought of all kinds of gimmicky things to do with him in L.A., but after hearing his recent travel schedule -- Greece, Paris, London (where Sedaris and Hamrick live for part of the year), New York and Normandy (another haunt of theirs) -- moving past the doorman of the Four Seasons seems an anticlimax.

Sedaris has told me he will not have his picture taken. As a kind of revenge, I bring several pictures from the Web to wave at him: Sedaris in his pot-and-alcohol days, Sedaris in his hip-square-glasses period, Sedaris looking alarmingly French. Today he is soberly dressed in a pink-and-white-striped button-down shirt, khakis and stylishly plain, flat, brown leather shoes (not the ones the writer refers to frequently as his “clown shoes”). He has a gap the size of Lauren Hutton’s in his front teeth and eyes that go off in separate directions. A deep vertical line in the middle of his forehead is the only evidence of age or worldly wear. He looks very relaxed, very happy, like someone who, at least when traveling, consigns himself graciously to the care of others. His manner is formal, but the kind of formal that puts you at ease. He orders apple pie à la mode. When the pie comes with the ice cream on the side, the writer can’t help but notice that it’s not, ahem, actually, à la mode now, is it?

Sedaris likes book tours. He’s a good traveler, and he actually appreciates his readers’ dedication -- in spite of the fact that he often has to keep them at bay. He figures that these days a couple attending one of his readings or lectures could well be out $200, what with dinner, baby-sitter, gas and (occasionally) tickets. His fans are a devoted, proprietary and generally talkative bunch. Sedaris brings it out in them. Months before the new book’s publication date, articles began popping up in the New York Observer and elsewhere about why Sedaris had changed the title from “All the Beauty You’ll Ever Need” to “Indefinite Leave to Remain” to “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” Readers panicked. “Titles change!” Little, Brown told PW, as if to say, Get over it! Grow up!

In an earlier flap, Alex Heard in the New Republic accused Sedaris of not really respecting the wall between nonfiction and fiction, of hiding behind humor (the facts might not have been as funny) and, heaven forbid, of exaggerating stuff, including personal stuff from Sedaris’ life. (“In Italy they keep asking me where I came up with the character of David,” Sedaris says, palms raised.) In the subsequent volley, San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon wrote that part of Sedaris’ motive was money (nonfiction earns more than fiction) and, worse, that funny fiction is harder to pull off. Sedaris dismissed Heard and company (of Heard’s sally he noted, “I’m probably lucky the person who wrote it is so incompetent”) but was annoyed when, earlier this spring, Sedaris’ sister Amy was called by a New Yorker fact-checker to verify whether David had paid her a dime for a chicken leg at a childhood dinner. Amy claimed he paid her 20 cents. So the fact-checker called Sedaris back. The writer does not find this amusing. He finds it (I’m guessing from his expression) stupid and small. Sedaris: One. Fascists: Zero.

From the moment he stepped into the limelight after a 1992 spot on Ira Glass’ public radio show, his enormous popularity has never flagged. We could talk about cultish believers, but his readers (judging from chat rooms and bulletin boards on the Web) range from age 14 to age 98. I have a theory (they pay me to do this): Sedaris makes really big things, like growing up gay, or a child’s need for parental approval that persists into adulthood, or working at humiliating jobs just to pay the rent, or not speaking a language, or not being understood, or being shunned (I could go on forever) seem bearable. Some comedians grapple with the small stuff -- the million little moments, the pecked-to-death-by-ducks aspects of our pathetic human existence. Sedaris writes his essays like a novelist, as if he knows, or at least has a darn good idea, of our potential to be large and how we might go about achieving this.

I have a less rational explanation as well. It goes like this: He’s contagious. Once you have read a few of his essay/stories, his way of seeing the world -- too quirky for television, movies (a 2001 effort to make a movie of “Me Talk Pretty,” directed by Wayne Wang, ended in good faith) or even fiction but perfect for the stage and his chosen form -- becomes embedded in you. And this worldview works like a charm, keeping everything at just the right distance. There’s a sweetness to it that keeps it from lapsing into pure cynicism. Nor is there the grim irony of the old and the bitter (or worse, the young and the bitter).

There’s no sarcasm: Sedaris often makes fun of sarcastic people, like the French teacher in “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” “We didn’t know it then,” he wrote of the teacher, whose cruelty was absurd, “but the coming months would teach us what it was like to spend time in the presence of a wild animal. . . . ‘I hate you,’ she said to me one afternoon. Her English was flawless. ‘I really, really hate you.’ Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help but take it personally.”

Many of Sedaris’ essays over the years have been about depending on, giving up, slipping up, missing and not missing cigarettes, pot and alcohol. In this collection, he seems to have quit just about everything, except maybe apple pie à la mode. This annoys me, for reasons that are, perhaps, overly revealing. He answers my plaintive questions (Why? Why?) patiently, as you might explain to a child: One night, he says, he found himself at his sister Amy’s -- the only place he could go late at night when he was drunk and high. He shows me the little fumble and the follow-up pretend lean-on-the-washing-machine that finally made him realize how pitiful he was. He felt sorry for having put his sister in that position -- unable to tell him how stupid he looked and unable to help him.

Did abstinence make it harder for him to write? Nah, he says. “Drinking and smoking didn’t enhance my work. I just typed a lot.” In spite of all the travel, his daily life is now more manageable. “In Normandy,” he says fondly, “there are about 12 houses in our village. I spend whole days watching centipedes attack each other.” He finds it harder and harder to understand, much less participate in, the “outrage,” the everyday “sidewalk rage” of cities. In this new collection, Sedaris writes about his travels in Japan, where he and Hugh rented a Tokyo apartment for several months and Sedaris took language classes. These were kinder and gentler than his French classes in Paris, but still the writer felt he was by far the least adept of the students.

Does he, in general, feel that it’s gotten harder to be an American in Europe and Asia?

“The worst I ever heard in Japan,” he says, “is that we smell like butter. I’ve been accused of worse. It’s a bit much to expect people to be sincere when you can’t even speak the language.”

Sedaris is thrilled to have realized his long-held dream of writing for the New Yorker. He has (unless I’m imagining it) the patina writers get after seeing their work in those hallowed pages. He’s not even particularly blasé about it, recalling the first issue of the magazine he ever saw, while baby-sitting in North Carolina, where he grew up. “Gosh, this is better than Time magazine,” he remembers thinking. “It never wears off.” Then adds, “They gave me a raise recently and I still couldn’t believe they actually pay me to write for them. Of course, just when you’re feeling good, they all start saying how much better it was in the ‘90s.” He even admires the fact-checkers, comparing their zeal favorably with the insouciance of the chattering classes: “This is the age of government lying, and instead of fact-checking every word out of George Bush’s mouth, we’re down here with the little liars.”

Another irritant is the expectation people have that they should be able to download the work of writers, musicians and other artists off the Internet for nothing. “I have old-fashioned ideas about books and publishing,” he says. “Everyone wants everything to be free.” He’s not much into blogging, either. The idea of Jenny and Keith pronouncing on, say, Billie Holiday, gives him the pip, as does the arguing over opinions in the absence of any critical context: “She’s great! She’s terrible! Shut up! No, you!” is how he characterizes Web-based criticism.

Sedaris has yet to write a novel. He probably regrets even mentioning, over a decade ago, that he was working on one. “I have about 10 pages,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I have a 10-page attention span,” adding, “the size of my ideas doesn’t quite match the size of the canvas.” Though the movie version of “Me Talk Pretty” didn’t work out, “SantaLand Diaries,” one of the writer’s earliest pieces -- about working at Macy’s during the holidays as a full-time elf -- appears to be on the table. “There’s a secret that Macy’s doesn’t want anyone to know,” Sedaris whispers. He looks around. " . . . It’s about Santa Claus.”

“I am trying to look on the bright side” he wrote in that 1992 essay. “I arrived in New York three weeks ago with high hopes, hopes that have been challenged. In my imagination I’d go straight from Penn Station to the offices of ‘One Life to Live,’ where I would drop off my bags and spruce up before heading off for drinks with Cord Roberts and Victoria Buchannon, the show’s greatest stars. We’d sit in a plush booth at a tony cocktail lounge where my new celebrity friends would lift their frosty glasses in my direction and say, ‘A toast to David Sedaris, the best writer this show has ever had!!!’ ”

It almost never happens this way: The real story is better. *

susan.reynolds@latimes.comSusan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.