Barrel Fever

Published: June 1, 1994

In David Sedaris’s world, no one is safe and no cow is sacred. Sedaris’s collection of essays and stories is a rollicking tour through the national Zeitgeist: a do-it-yourself suburban dad saves money by performing home surgery; a man who is loved too much flees the heavyweight champion of the world; a teenage suicide tries to incite a lynch mob at her funeral; a bitter Santa abuses the elves. With a perfect eye and a voice infused with as much empathy as wit, Sedaris writes stories and essays that target the soulful ridiculousness of our behavior.

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Praise for Barrel Fever

“A satirical brazenness that holds up next to Twain and Nathanael West.” —The New Yorker

“Uniquely affecting, Sedaris’s stories infest the mind as if they were your own dark memories.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Sedaris ekes humor out of the blackest of scenarios, peppering his narrative with memorable turns of phrase and repeatedly surprising double-edged wit…suggesting a caustic mix of J. D. Salinger and John Waters.” —Publishers Weekly

“Fortunately, not every page of Barrel Fever will leave you laughing so hard that it’s impossible to breathe—thank goodness for the droll but manageable Table of Contents—but still, this is one of those ‘Open at your own risk’ books… Barrel Fever is wacky writing par excellence: original, acid, and wild.” —Michael Dorris, Los Angeles Times

“These hilarious, lively, and breathtakingly irreverent stories…move way too fast to be summarized or described. They made me laugh out loud more often than anything I’ve read in years.” —Francine Prose, Washington Post Book World

“’SantaLand Diaries’ is quite possibly the thirty-one funniest pages of text published in the past quarter-century…. David Sedaris slays me.” —Bruce Barcott, Seattle Weekly

“The stories in Barrel Fever are rare glimpses into the lives of grotesques residing on the most dysfunctional margins of America…. With a mordant wit akin to Evelyn Waugh’s ant the perceptive economy of William Trevor, Sedaris cross-pollinates humor and pathos to create some splendid, often emotionally disorienting moments…. Poignant, bittersweet, relentless, these stories have a peculiar and worthy place in a society that perks up at the opportunity to pruriently observe or divulge all things private—imagine Oprah with a sense of irony and a laugh track.” —Hugh Garvey, New York Newsday

“Sedaris’s touch is so assured that the final impression is not just comedy but pathos.” —Dale Peck

“These are the kind of stories you instinctively read really fast because they are so good and so naughty you feel certain someone will snatch them away from you.” —Lynda Barry


excerpt

PARADE

I WAS ON “Oprah” a while ago, talking about how I used to love too much. Did you see it? The other guests were men who continue to love too much. Those men were in a place I used to be, and I felt sorry for them. I was the guest who went from loving too much to being loved too much. Everybody loves me. I’m the most important person in the lives of almost everyone I know and a good number of people I’ve never even met. I don’t say this casually; I’m just pointing out my qualification.

Because I know the issue from both sides, I am constantly asked for advice. People want to know how I did it. They want to know if I can recommend a therapist. How much it will cost, how long it might take to recover. When asked, I tell them, like I’m telling you, that I have never visited a therapist in my life. I worked things out on my own. I don’t see it as any great feat. I just looked at the pattern of my life, decided I didn’t like it, and changed. The only reason I agreed to appear on Oprah’s panel was because I thought her show could use a little sprucing up. Oprah is a fun girl, but you’d never know it from watching that show of hers, that parade of drunks and one-armed welfare cheats. And of course I did it to help people. I try and make an effort whenever I can.

Growing up, my parents were so very into themselves that I got little love and attention. As a result, I would squeeze the life out of everyone I came into contact with. I would scare away my dates on the first night by telling them that this was it, the love experience I’d been waiting for. I would plan our futures. Everything we did together held meaning for me and would remain bright in my memory. By the second date, I would arrive at the boyfriend’s apartment carrying a suitcase and a few small pieces of furniture so that when I moved in completely I wouldn’t have to hire a crew of movers. When these boyfriends became frightened and backed away, I would hire detectives to follow them. I needed to know that they weren’t cheating on me. I would love my dates so much that I would become obsessed. I would dress like them, think like them, listen to the records they enjoyed. I would forget about me! To make a long story short, I finally confronted my parents, who told me that they were only into themselves because they were afraid I might reject them if they loved me as intensely as they pretended to love themselves. They were hurting, too, and remarkably vulnerable. They always knew how special I was, that I had something extra, that I would eventually become a big celebrity who would belong to the entire world and not just to them. And they were right. I can’t hate them for being right. I turned my life around and got on with it.

Did you see the show? Chuck Connors and Cyrus Vance were, in my opinion, just making an appearance in order to bolster their sagging careers. But not Patrick Buchanan. Man, I used to think I had it bad! Patrick Buchanan has chased away every boyfriend he’s ever had, and he’s still doing it. Patrick is a big crier. He somehow latched on to me and he’s been calling and crying ever since the show. That’s his trademark, crying and threatening suicide if I don’t listen. That guy is a complete emotional cripple, but the other panel members didn’t seem fit to speak on the subject. E. G. Marshall, for example, would talk about driving past his ex-boyfriend’s house and calling him in the middle of the night just to hear his voice. Chuck Connors said he used to shower his boyfriends with costly gifts. He tried to buy their love. Chuck Connors wouldn’t recognize love if it were his own hand, and E. G. Marshall if it were both his hands, one down there and the other gently at his throat. I am in this week’s People magazine, but not on the cover. Bruce Springsteen is on the cover with whatshername, that flat-faced new wife of his, Patty Scholastica or Scoliosis — something like that. In the article she refers to Bruce as “the Boss” and discusses what she calls his “private side.”

If she’s calling Bruce “the Boss,” I can tell you she knows absolutely nothing about his “private side.”

I was the boss when Bruce and I were together. Maybe I should give this Patty person a call and tell her how Bruce needs to have it, give her a few pointers and clear up this “Boss” issue once and for all. Tell her how Bruce groveled and begged for a commitment and how he behaved when I turned him down. I’d said, “What’s the use of being a multimillionaire when you walk around dressed like a second-shift welder at U.S. Pipe & Boiler?” Bruce wants to keep in touch with his “people,” which is admirable in theory but grotesque when you consider the fact that his “people” consume gasoline, domestic beer, and acne medication in equal amounts.

Bruce took it hard and picked up these women on the rebound. I remember running into that last wife of his, the model, at a party. It was she, I, Morley Safer, and Waylon Jennings. We were waiting for the elevator, and she was saying to Waylon that Bruce had just donated seven figures to charity, and I said, “No matter how much money Bruce gives to charity, I still say he’s one of the tightest men I’ve ever known.” It went right over her head, but Morley knew what I was talking about and we shared a smile.

I am in this week’s People magazine celebrating my love with Charlton Heston. There are pictures of me tossing a pillow into his face, pretending to be caught during a playful spat. You know that we can be real with one another because on the next page there I am standing on tiptoe planting a big kiss on his neck while Burgess Meredith, Bobby Packwood, and some other old queens are standing and applauding in the background. Then I’m in the kitchen flipping pancakes to show I’m capable. I’m walking down the street with Charlton Heston, and then I’m staring out to sea, digging my bare toes deep into the sand, in this week’s People magazine.

The press is having a field day over the news of my relationship with Mike Tyson. We tried to keep it a secret, but for Mike and me there can be no privacy. Number one, we’re good copy; and number two, we just look so damned good together, so perfect, that everyone wants pictures.

Charlton Heston and I are finished, and he’s hurt. I can understand that, but to tell you the truth, I can’t feel sorry for him. He had started getting on my nerves a long time ago, before the People story, before our television special, even before that March of Dimes telethon. Charlton can be manipulative and possessive. It seems to have taken me a long time to realize that all along I was in love with the old Charlton Heston, the one who stood before the Primate Court of Justice in Planet of the Apes. The one who had his loincloth stripped off by Dr. Zaus and who stood there naked but unafraid. What a terrific ass Charlton Heston used to have, but, like everything else about him, it’s nothing like it used to be.

In the papers Charlton is whining about our relationship and how I’ve hurt him. I’m afraid that unless Charlton learns to keep his mouth shut, he’s going to learn the true meaning of the word hurt. Mike is very angry at Charlton right now — very, very angry.

Let me say for the record that Mike Tyson, although he showers me with gifts, is not paying for my company. I resent the rumors to the contrary. Mike and I are both wealthy, popular men. The public loves us and we love one another. I don’t need Mike Tyson’s money any more than he needs mine. This is a difficult concept for a lot of people to grasp, people who are perhaps envious of what Mike and I share. This was the case with Charlton Heston, who lost most of his money in a series of bad investments. It’s sad. The man is a big star who makes a fortune delivering the Ten Commandments one day, and then loses it all as a silent partner in a Sambo’s restaurant chain the next. Mike and I would gladly give everything we’ve got in exchange for a little privacy. We would be happy living in a tent, cooking franks over an open fire on the plot of land we bought just outside Reno. Mike Tyson and I are that much in love. It is unfortunate that our celebrity status does not allow us to celebrate that love in public. Since we were spotted holding hands at a Lakers game, all hell has broken loose, and the “just good friends” line has stopped working. None of this is helping Mike’s divorce case or my breakup with Charlton, who, I might add, is demanding some kind of a settlement. For the time being, Mike Tyson and I are lying low. It’s killing us, but we’ve had to put our relationship on the back burner.

I accidentally swallowed Mike Tyson’s false teeth. I can’t believe it! They were gold, but money isn’t the issue. Between the two of us, we could buy gold teeth for every man, woman, and child with the gums to accommodate them. It’s not the money that bothers me.

It was late, and Mike had taken his teeth out for the evening. He’d put them in a tumbler of water we kept next to our bed. Mike could sleep with his teeth in, but believe me, it was better with them out. We had just finished making very strenuous, very complete love when I reached for that glass of water and drank it down, teeth and all. It was unsettling. The problem was that Mike was planning to have those teeth set into a medallion of commitment for me. He was gracious and forgiving and said that it was no problem, he’d just have some others made. But those teeth were special, his first real gold teeth. Those were the teeth that had torn into all of the exotic meals I had introduced him to. Those were the teeth I polished with my tongue on our first few dates, the teeth that hypnotized me across a candlelit table, the teeth that reflected the lovelight shining in my eyes. I swallowed Mike Tyson’s teeth and let him down.

I’ve been waiting for days, but they still haven’t passed. They have to come out sooner or later, don’t they? Even if I do find them, I can’t expect Mike to put them back in his mouth. That was a big part of our commitment ceremony. I was supposed to reach into my mouth and pull out a rather expensive diamond-studded ID bracelet I’d had made, and Mike was going to reach into his and withdraw the medallion. Mike said, What the hell, it wasn’t like his teeth hadn’t been up my ass before. But it was the principle of the thing that got me down.

Mike Tyson and I were arguing over what to name the kitten we’d bought. I would have just as soon taken one of the many free kittens that had been offered to us. Everyone wanted to give Mike and me kittens. I thought we might just take one of those, but Mike said no. He wanted the kitten that had captured his heart from a pet shop window the previous week, a white Persian/Himalayan female. I don’t care for puffy cats in the first place, and this one, with her flat face, reminded me of whatsher-name, Bruce’s new girlfriend, Patty. But I said, “All right, Mike.” I said, “If you want this Persian/Himalayan mix, then that’s what we’ll get.” I can love just about anything on all fours, so I said, “Fine, whatever.” Let me say that a longhaired cat is one thing, but a white Persian/Himalayan blend named Pitty Ting is something else altogether.

I’d wanted to name the kitten Sabrina 2. I’d had another cat, my Sabrina, for years before she died. I was used to the name and the connotations it carried in my mind. Mike, though, was adamant about the name Pitty Ting, which was unfair seeing as I hadn’t wanted a puffy cat in the first place, especially a white one that would be hard to keep clean. Besides, this was a relationship in which compromise was supposed to be the name of the game. I gave a little, so why couldn’t he?

Driving home from the pet store we started to argue. Mike said some pretty rough things and I responded tit for tat. He was driving like a trained seal, all over the road, and the constant swerving was making me sick to my stomach. The kitten was in the backseat, yowling and carrying on like you wouldn’t believe. I turned around and told it to shut up, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mike raise his fist. I thought he was threatening another driver or rolling up the window. It all happened so fast. I saw his raised fist, and then again, I guess I didn’t see it.

After he hit me, I got out of the car and walked. I’ve had some physical fights with boyfriends before, Norman Mailer and Peter Jennings to name just a couple, so I’m no stranger to a flaring temper. This time, though, I just walked away. Mike followed me. He drove his car up onto the sidewalk, but I kept walking, pretending not to notice. Then Mike got out of the car and started begging, begging on his knees, and whimpering. I put my hand up to my eye, pretending to wipe away some of the blood, and then, boy, did I clip him!

While he was unconscious, I let the kitten out of the car and sort of kicked her on her way, no problem. A puffy cat like that will have no problem finding someone to love her. When he came to, Mike had forgotten the entire incident. That happens all the time — he forgets. He didn’t even ask why we were spattered with blood. He asked, “What happened?” and I answered, “Don’t you remember? You said you wanted to buy me a pony.” So then we purchased a beautiful Shetland pony named Sabrina 2. We forgot about naming things, about anything but our relationship. We rode round and round the block on our pony, who groaned beneath the collective weight of our rich and overwhelming capacity for love and understanding.

Mike Tyson started acting out and it got on my nerves. I can overlook an incident here and there, but Mike started pushing it. For example, one night we were having dinner with Bill and Pat Buckley. Now, I’ve known Bill and Pat for years. We used to vacation together (we all adore sailing), and I think we understand one another fairly well. Bill and Pat have one of those convenient marriages, an arrangement that allows them to pursue sexual relationships on the side with no hard feelings. I met Bill Buckley back when he was going with Redd Foxx, which was years ago.

Pat had recently broken up with Elizabeth Dole and, unfortunately, decided to employ the sordid details of the breakup as our dinner’s conversational centerpiece. This is an old habit of hers. Pour a few drinks into Pat Buckley and she’ll tell you everything, whether you want to hear it or not. If forced to take sides in the issue, I’m afraid I’d sympathize with Liz Dole, but Mike felt differently. We were having dinner when Pat started telling us about a few of Liz’s rather arcane sexual practices. When Bill suggested she change the subject, Mike hauled off and punched him, breaking his jaw as a matter of fact. Afterwards, Pat Buckley thanked Mike Tyson for breaking her husband’s jaw. She said she’d spent the last forty years being patronized by men like Bill Buckley. So what does Mike do? He invites Pat to move in with us! Now, I know what Pat Buckley is really like, and I don’t want her living in our house, dragging strange girls in and out at all hours of the night. I’ve seen Pat Buckley in action. I know about the drinking, the drugs, all of it, so I said, “Miiiikkkkeeee,” through my clenched teeth. I kicked him under the table and he kicked back.

Mike Tyson is making an ugly face in the “Newsmakers” section of this week’s Newsweek magazine, an ugly face directed toward me. I’m not frightened so much as shamed and concerned. In the picture Mike’s skin seems sallow and blotchy. He looks like he’s been rolling around in an ashtray. Our breakup was hard on him, but whining to the press won’t help.

I left as soon as Pat Buckley moved in. I guess Mike thought I would change my mind and welcome her into our lives. I guess Mike was wrong.

Pat Buckley didn’t stay long. She was dating Mackenzie Phillips at the time and stayed only three weeks before taking off to Cannes or Rio or someplace. Looking back on it, I can’t put all the blame on Pat Buckley. Mike and I had problems before she came along, big problems we would have been forced to deal with sooner or later. I don’t want to go into any of the details of our relationship, but I would like to set the record straight and say that there is no truth to the rumors about me and Morley Safer. I resent Mike’s accusation that Morley and I are anything more than friends.

I resent Mike Tyson’s self-pitying ploys for attention. I resent his suggestion that I was in any way false or insincere. Unlike him, I don’t care to dwell on the unpleasant aspects of our relationship. I prefer to remember a time when Mike and I, having finished a simple game of cards, were sitting side by side in comfortable reclining chairs. Mike took my hand in his and began, very gently, to pet my fingers, kissing each one, and addressing them as individuals.