For Valentine’s Day, David Sedaris bought his boyfriend Hugh a box of chocolates – but only because a taxidermied owl didn’t seem like enough. Sedaris’ stories of life’s small peculiarities, as well as some of its larger ones, kept audience members laughing on Saturday night at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
Sedaris, whose sardonic wit and playfully dark humor has earned him acclaim as an author and humorist, stopped in Providence on his nationwide tour to promote his latest book, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary,” which hit bookstores September 2010. But the majority of Saturday night’s readings were from his more recent work, including an article published in the New Yorker and some in-progress pieces.
Sedaris kicked off the evening with a reading of “If I Ruled the World,” a short, quippy piece that parodies religious fundamentalism. He followed with a humorously irreverent tale called “Understanding Owls,” in which Sedaris used tongue-in-cheek humor to explore the limits of human sympathy and his own fascination with all things grotesque.
In his pursuit of a stuffed owl, he recounted, an enthusiastic taxidermist proudly flaunted the skeleton of a pygmy murdered by a British colonist, a mummified arm that had been severed in a bar fight and the preserved head of a 14-year-old girl kept wrapped in a grocery bag.
“It wouldn’t have been disturbing to see the skeleton of a slain pygmy in a museum, but finding it in a shop for sale raised certain questions,” Sedaris remarked. “Uncomfortable ones, like, ‘How much is he?'”
Among other things, Sedaris said “juvenile morbidity” is something he shares with his sisters Gretchen and Amy. Several of Sedaris’ stories – though never without a mischievous humor – highlighted the role of family in shaping individual identity.
In a reading from a yet-to-be-titled story about a trip to Amsterdam, Sedaris said he was told there is now a person alive who will live to be 200, a frightening idea – especially if that person turns out to be Sedaris’ father.
“When I’m 67, my father will be a mere 100 years old,” he calculated. “That would leave him a whole other century to call at odd hours and ask me if I’ve gotten a colonoscopy.”
Sedaris’ next piece, “Dentists Without Borders,” which appeared in the New Yorker April 2, drew laughs from anyone who has ever been asked a question while choking on a mouthful of dental equipment, but it also paid a sentimental tribute to the importance of appreciating the people who take care of you.
Sedaris read a few whimsical poems, as well as excerpts from his diary, and happily shared some of the raunchier jokes he’s collected from fans while on tour.
“What’s the worst thing you can hear when you’re blowing Willie Nelson?” he asked. “I’m not Willie Nelson.”
His last reading was from nature writer Gordon Grice’s “Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals.” Reciting an excerpt about monkeys in India that throw rocks at cars, cyclists and pedestrians, Sedaris could barely muffle a chuckle – for Sedaris, there is always humor in the unfortunate and absurd.
After a brief question-and-answer session, Sedaris retired to the lobby for a book signing and welcomed fans to speak with him. But attendees should be careful about what they reveal – their oddities might just be fodder for his next sarcastic glimpse at human nature.