Monday, 19 December 2011

David Sedaris' "Next of Kin"

Recently, Lady Ariella Tyrold lent me David Sedaris' Naked. A collection of witty and slightly disconcerting  short stories of an allegedly autobiographical nature, it is dripping with black humour. Unsettling like Poe's Lionizing (see earlier post) but with the anecdotal and brash humour Poe lacks the following short story really made my month. If you like this short story too, you can enjoy the many others by buying the book.

Paperback Cover
Next of Kin
by David Sedaris

I found the book hidden in the woods beneath a sheet of plywood, its cover torn away and the pages damp with mildew. I read, "Brock and Bonnie Rivers stood in their driveway, waving goodbye to the Reverend Hassleback. 'Goodbye,' they said, waving. 'Goodbye,' the reverend responded. 'Tell those two teens of yours, Josh and Sandi, that they'll make an excellent addition to our young persons' ministry. They're fine kids,' he said with a wink. 'Almost as fine and foxy as their parents.' The Rivers chuckled, raising their hands in another wave. When the reverend's car finally left the driveway, they stood for a moment in the bright sunshine before descending into the basement dungeon to unshackle the children."

The theme of the book was that people are not always what they seem. Highly respected in their upper-middleclass community, the Rivers family practiced a literal interpretation of the phrase "Love thy neighbor." Limber as gymnasts, these people were both shameless and insatiable. Father and daughter, brother and sister, mother and son, after exhausting every possible combination, they widened their circle to include horny sea captains and door-to-door knife salesmen. Yes, these people were naughty, but at the age of 13, I couldn't help but admire their infectious energy and spirited enjoyment of life.

The first few times I read the book, I came away shocked, not by the characters' behavior, but by the innumerable typos. Had nobody bothered to proofread this book before sending it to print? In the opening chapter, the daughter is caught with her brother's ceck in her pissy, calling out "feck me hard, hardir". On page 33, the son has sex with his mother, who we are told possesses a fond par of tots. I showed the book to my sister Lisa, who tore it from my hands, saying, let me hold on to this for a while.

She and I often swapped babysitting jobs and considered ourselves fairly well read in the field of literary pornography. "Look in the parents' bedroom beneath the sweaters in the second drawer of the white dresser," she'd say. We'd each read The Story of O and the collected writings of the Marquis de Sade with one eye on the front door, fearful that the homeowners might walk in and torture us with barbed whips and hot oils. We know you, our looks would say as the parents checked on their sleeping children. We know all about you.

The book went from Lisa to our 11-year-old sister, Gretchen, who interpreted it as a startling nonfiction expose on the American middle class. "I'm pretty sure this exact same thing is going on right here in North Hills," she whispered, tucking the book beneath the artificial grass of her Easter basket. "Take the Sherman family, for example. Just last week, I saw Heidi sticking her hands down Steve Junior's pants." "The guy has two broken arms," I said. "She was probably just tucking in his shirt." "Would you ask one of us to tuck in your shirt?" she asked. She had a point. A careful study suggested that the Shermans were not the people they pretended to be. The father was often seen tugging at his crotch, and the wife had a disturbing habit of looking you straight in the eye while sniffing her fingers. A veil had been lifted, especially for Gretchen, who now saw the world as a steaming pit of unbridled sexuality.

Seated on a lounge chair at the country club, she would narrow her eyes, speculating on the children crowding the shallow end of the pool. "I have a sneaking suspicion Christina Youngblood might be our half sister," she said. "She's got her father's chin, but the eyes and mouth are pure Mom." I felt uneasy implicating our parents, but Gretchen provided a wealth of frightening evidence. She noted the way our mother applied lipstick at the approach of the potato chip delivery man, whom she addressed by first name and often invited in to use the bathroom. Our father referred to the bank tellers as "doll" and "sweetheart," and their responses suggested that he had taken advantage of them one time too many.

The Greek Orthodox church, the gaily dressed couples at the country club, even our elderly collie, Duchess, they were all in on it according to Gretchen, who took to piling furniture against her bedroom door before going to sleep at night. The book wound up in the hands of our 10-year-old sister, Amy, who used it as a textbook in the make-believe class she held after school each day. Dressed in a wig and high heels, she passed her late afternoons standing before a blackboard and imitating her teachers.

"I'm very sorry, Candice, but I'm going to have to fail you," she'd say, addressing one of the empty folding chairs arranged before her. "The problem is not that you don't try. The problem is that you're stupid, very, very stupid. Isn't Candice stupid, class? She's ugly, too. Am I wrong? Very well, Candice, you can sit back down now. And for god's sakes, please stop crying. OK, class. Now I'm going to read to you from this week's new book. It's a story about a California family and it's called Next of Kin."

If Amy had read the book, then surely it had been seen by eight-year-old Tiffany, who shared her bedroom, and possibly by our brother, Paul, who at the age of two might have sucked on the binding, which was even more dangerous than reading it. Clearly, this had to stop before it got out of hand. 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.

Gretchen took the book and hid it under the carpet of her bedroom, where it was discovered by our housekeeper, Lena, who eventually handed it over to our mother. "I'll make sure this is properly disposed of," my mother said, hurrying down the hallway to her bedroom. "Panetration," she laughed, reading out loud from a randomly selected page. "Oh, this ought to be good."

Weeks later, Gretchen and I found the book hidden between the mattress and box springs of my parents' bed, the pages stained with coffee rings and cigarette ash. The discovery seemed to validate all of Gretchen's suspicions. "They'll be coming for us any day now," she warned. "Be prepared, my friend, because this time they'll be playing for keeps." We waited. I'd always made it a point to kiss my mother before going to bed, but not anymore. The feel of her hand on my shoulder now made my flesh crawl.

She was hemming a pair of my pants one afternoon when, standing before her on a kitchen chair, I felt her hands grace my butt. "I-- I just want to be friends," I stammered. "Nothing more, nothing less." She took the pins out of her mouth and studied me for a moment before sighing. "Damn, and here you've been leading me on all this time."

I read the book once more, hoping to recapture my earlier pleasure, but it was too late now. I couldn't read the phrase, "He paunched his daughter's rock-hard nopples," without thinking of Gretchen barricading herself in the bedroom. I thought I might throw the book away, or maybe even burn it, but like a perfectly good outgrown sweater, it seemed a shame to destroy it when the world was full of people who might get some use out of it.

With this in mind, I carried the book to the grocery store parking lot, and tossed it into the back of a shiny new pickup truck. I then took up my post beside the store's outdoor vending machines, waiting until the truck's owner returned, pushing a cart full of groceries. He was a wiry man, with fashionable mutton-chop sideburns and a half-cast on his arm.

As he placed his bags into the back of the truck, his eyes narrowed upon the book. I watched as he picked it up and leafed through the first few pages, before raising his head to search the parking lot. He took a cigarette from his pocket and tapped it against the roof of the truck before lighting it. Then he slipped the book into his pocket and drove away.

What do you think? 

Is this your cup of tea? Have you read anything else by David Sedaris and if so, are there short stories or collections you think are better than this? If this is the case, why? Are you aware of any similar authors in terms of content, tone or use of language? Naked conludes my sojourn through the Sedaris bibliography and I am on the lookout for more like it, so...
Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are, as always, welcome!

Sources: Text, Pic.

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