By Dawnell Smith
Since the David Sedaris reading a few hours ago, I can't seem to shake the one burning question that has kept me from making deadline. If zombie bites can kill dogs without turning them into zombies and yet change humans into relentless, hapless, mindless, slow-footed, poorly dressed, reanimated, flesh-eating visages of the immortally dead, then what does a zombie bite do to an ape or chimpanzee?
Do animals genetically similar to humans turn into zombies, too? And if so, should this influence our assumptions about the hierarchies, intelligence and rights of sentient beings?
Furthermore, why would a reasonably intelligent group of humans squander a perfectly good half-hour (and $30 to $40) listening to one writer talk about another guy's book one zombies?
Well, because David Sedaris charmed people before uttering a single word last night at the Atwood Concert Hall. The crowd's adulation started during the introduction and ended in the long line to the book-signing table several hours later. Sedaris, who regularly contributes to The New Yorker and whose books get published internationally, made a name for himself as a humorist on National Public Radio.
This time he started by reading a story about taking French lessons in Paris, the central essay from "Me Talk Pretty One Day." As the inanity of poor French translated into English grew more and more absurd, the audience broke into ecstatic bouts of laughter as uniform as a laugh track.
Well come on, Sedaris is simply hilarious. He can generate a throwaway line like a stand up comedian and then hone seemingly disparate stories or observations into a single thematic gesture. A story like "Town and Country" breaks down assumptions about class, style and status even as it rides the inherent hilarity of scatological excess.
His reading of it both heightened and tempered its qualities. Through tempo, diction and dramatic pauses, Sedaris elevated the humor and underlying themes while making the harshest characters suppler, more human and unquestionably sympathetic.
Another essay, "All the Beauty You Will Ever Need," juxtaposes the story of trying to score pot from a drug dealer and his trashy wife with that of coping with spotty water service in the French countryside.
Somehow, his reading of the essay, recently published in The New Yorker, elongated the shameful parts and softened the biting truths. Sedaris may know how to use satire for laughs, but he also knows its value in conveying compassion and genuine human stories.
Well, except for that zombie stuff.
Yes, it's quite possible that some people got distressed when the author of "Naked" and "Holidays on Ice" started rambling about how zombies can't throw rocks or move quickly as documented in "The Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks, a ridiculously serious take on the living dead.
We don't get a lot of book readings with ticket prices that top the average Whistling Swan concert, but Sedaris pulled it off. As far as I can tell, no one left the Atwood Concert Hall more a zombie than they entered it.