Reviews of David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day" and Robert Bausch's "A Hole in the Earth" 

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In Too Deep
Full-time history professor and part-time gambler Henry Porter has just turned 40. He also has just survived a summer that has seen the return from the West Coast of his estranged daughter as well as the unexpected pregnancy of his "girlfriend" of three years. But it's a summer whose events he has reacted to by spending weeks avoiding them and all their implications, riding the subways of D.C. from one end of the city to the other, coming above ground only to meet his classes and get an occasional bite to eat.

Henry, who is plagued by an inability to make firm and quick decisions about anything except which horse to bet on, has been forced to face the consequences of his indecisions and what they say about him as father, son, husband and lover, and he hasn't done so particularly well.

Virginian Robert Bausch, author of three previous novels, has given us his fourth. And "A Hole in the Earth" (Harcourt $24), despite its flaws, is about as satisfying as novels come. It's a book marked by its plot, which compounds complication upon complication, and by its narrator's voice, combining a wry, dark humor — no one can really make as many mistakes in so short a time as Henry — with pathos and tragedy. People die here, and Henry's relationships suffer rips that may never mend. But it's a book marked, too, by its insistence that a small redemption is a redemption nevertheless.

The flaws are few. Porter is, again, a college history professor, but in this close first-person narrative he never places his own experience in any sort of historical context, and as we read, we want him to, even expect him to. And the story reads as though it is taking place in the present day, though we eventually are able to figure out that it actually covers events that took place in 1989. This unnecessary mystery may cause us some momentary confusion, but we do well to put it aside. "A Hole in the Earth" has too much to tell us about ourselves, about the world we inhabit, about the beds we make to lie in.

— Jeff Lodge

Me Laugh Hard
For the past five years, I have been working on a joke linking the Ukrops to their own White House Rolls. I plan to deliver it casually to a group of 10 people. It will be quietly devastating and people will talk about it later. All I need is the joke. In the meantime, I am using David Sedaris' howlingly funny "Me Talk Pretty One Day" (Little, Brown, $22.95) as source material.

Sedaris has made a career in print and on National Public Radio with his one-liners and deadpan characterizations, giving special attention to his family members. His father squirrels away leftover food in his office and car. "I used to think this was standard Greek behavior until I realized that ours was the only car in the church parking lot swarmed by bees." His mother sends him a check to cover the cost of his cat's cremation with the memo line filled out "pet burning." Sister Amy has a makeup artist give her a black eye. When asked about it, she replies, "I'm in love. Can you believe it? I'm finally totally in love, and I feel great."

Much of the book is devoted to Sedaris' move to France. In "Jesus Shaves," we find Sedaris taking a French class in Paris. His translations into English of the students' explanations of Easter are the funniest bits in the book. "He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two morsels of lumber," and: "He nice, the Jesus." When a woman from Bosnia tells the class she feels happy, the French teacher accuses her of genocide.

Reviewing this book is futile. It is so full of laughs, ideas and cruelties (the good kind) that it is impossible to do it justice. Whether the author is taking a guitar lesson from a midget, or enjoying knuckle of flash-seared crappie served with a collar of chided ginger and cornered by a tribe of kiln-roasted Chilean toadstools, teased with a warm spray of clarified musk oil, you have to read this book.

— Thom Jeter

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