He just fled Paris for London, but America's most wanted humorist -- author of the new ''Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim'' -- can't outrun success

By Nancy Miller
Updated June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Last year, David Sedaris decided to become a housecleaner. He had just moved from Paris to London and was feeling a bit bored and restless. So he stopped into a local employment agency (”The receptionist thought my name was Sid Harris,” he recalls) and filled out an application. Alas, he didn’t get a job. ”Something about not having work papers,” he says, bitterly stomping out the first of many cigarettes on a wet patch of Kings Road before quickly lighting another. ”It was terrible,” he says. ”Terrible.”

Not to mention a tragic loss for literature: The spectacle of this awkward 47-year-old American author scrubbing British toilets could have made for a hilarious essay. But then, that’s the trouble with being David Sedaris these days. After more than a decade chronicling his misadventures in the labor force (apple picker, furniture mover, and, of course, Macy’s Christmas elf) as well as his other, more personal degradations (like that midget guitar teacher he endured as a child), it’s getting tougher and tougher for him to find fresh humiliations to write about. In some parts of the world — the parts where he’s now enormously famous — it’s become all but impossible. He sums up his problem succinctly: ”It’s harder to spy on people when someone is shouting ‘Loved you on ‘Letterman!””

Fortunately, Sedaris has managed to scrape together enough new debasements to fill at least one more book, ”Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.” Like his previous collections (”Barrel Fever,” ”Naked,” ”Holidays on Ice,” and ”Me Talk Pretty One Day”), it’s a sly mix of selective autobiography and comic self-deprecation, with a sizable dollop of creative exaggeration (”True Enough for You” is the title Sedaris’ sister Amy suggests for the book, adding that its cover ”should have a big hole in it for his long nose”). Among the new collection’s highlights: Sedaris accidentally gives blood, gets mistaken for a serial killer, and attempts a ”Queer Eye”-style makeover on the Anne Frank house. ”I tend to write stories about me going up against something,” he explains, lighting another cigarette. ”I guess I’m attracted to situations where I have to overcome the odds. I don’t necessarily ever overcome those odds, because I’m a coward. But I’m attracted to the situations.”

He’s not the only one. So far Sedaris’ books have sold some 2.5 million copies in the U.S., making him something of a hip-lit hero in this country, a cooler, edgier (and, incidentally, gayer) version of Garrison Keillor. His readers fall into no one demographic — he’s equally beloved by highbrows, lowbrows, and unibrows — but all share a huge appetite for his every written word (and the spoken ones, too: His reedy-voiced readings on NPR draw some of the radio network’s biggest audiences, and his CD recordings have sold millions). Critics sometimes sniff at his peculiar brand of literary performance art — and complain that all his books are variations on the same gag — but his fans don’t seem to care. ”People sometimes ask, ‘So, is this book going to be like your last one?”’ he says, sighing deeply. ”I wish I could say, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be a novel about suffering in Tibet or a biography about the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.’ But my stories aren’t topical, they’re about me. ”