By Peter Ames Carlin
October 20, 1997 12:00 PM

YOU DON’T EXPECT SARCASM FROM a green-suited department store elf, but then it had been such a long day of escorting tots to St. Nick’s lap at the crowded Macy’s department store in New York City. So when a shopper demanded to know exactly where the ladies’ room was, David Sedaris suggested, loudly, that she just might try the line with all the women in it. “I’m going to have you fired!” the woman shrieked. Sedaris admits he “wanted to lean over and say, ‘I’m going to have you killed.’ ”

Not the sort of attitude that cuts it at the North Pole, but when Sedaris read his “SantaLand Diaries” on National Public Radio in 1992, his writing career took off like a sleigh pulled by Donder and Blitzen. He made regional bestseller lists in 1994 with Barrel Fever, a collection of quirky stories and essays (including “SantaLand”); and his 1997 autobiographical collection, Naked, not only landed him on The New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks but earned the 40-year-old writer comparisons to J.D. Salinger and even Mark Twain.

Not that the author of Huckleberry Finn would likely know what to make of the book’s title story, in which an elderly nudist dreams of watching an in-the-buff version of TV’s Wheel of Fortune. “I liked the idea of that,” Sedaris writes, “filming two separate versions of any given program…. ‘Do I have to?’ Peter Jennings would ask.”

For Sedaris, the naked truth is that he revels in life’s oddities. “I’ve always had a taste for the macabre,” says the writer, whose small Manhattan apartment, which he shares with painter Hugh Hamrick, 37, is filled with examples of taxidermists’ art (a baby ostrich, a weasel, a gray bunny). And while Sedaris’s stories tend to have a sharp edge—”He appeals to the worst in readers,” says his editor Geoffrey Kloske—critics laud his ability to leaven his tales of physically broken and emotionally scarred characters with humor and humanity. “People come to his work because he’s funny,” says Ira Glass, who produces Sedaris’s commentaries on NPR. “But there’s a complicated moral vision there.”

Both the vision and the wit can be found on display in “Ashes,” in which Sedaris describes the fatal illness of the mother he and his siblings adored. “It’s the size of a lemon,” she says of her tumor. “They’re hoping to catch it before it becomes a peach or a grapefruit, but who knows?” To sister Amy, 36, an actress and writer, her brother gets his “sarcastic but fair” sense of humor from his mother: “She had the same dark sensibility.” Mother and son also shared a love of cigarettes, which Sedaris maintains despite her 1991 death from lung cancer. “I don’t see the problem,” he shrugs. “You’ve got to die of something, right?”

The second of six children born to Lou, an engineer for IBM, and Sharon, a homemaker, David grew up in Raleigh, N.C. An anxious child, he found an outlet for his energies in high school theater and art programs. “I thought he’d be a normal kid eventually,” his father observes. It took a while. Sedaris dropped out of Ohio’s Kent State University in 1977, then spent a few years traveling and working at odd jobs—picking apples, house-painting—before heading in 1984 to the Art Institute of Chicago, where, after graduation, he joined the faculty as a writing teacher. Moving to Manhattan in 1990, Sedaris began publishing his eccentric stories in small literary magazines, though he always needed a day job—such as his memorialized stint at Macy’s—to pay the bills. Invited by Glass, a fan, to read his work on NPR, he was overwhelmed by the response. “The telephone started ringing,” Sedaris says, “and it wouldn’t stop.” Suddenly he was bypassing a number of career possibilities—from writing for Seinfeld to recording voice-overs for Volkswagen—to focus on his autobiographical essays.

With a new collection, Holiday on Ice, to be published this fall, Sedaris is gearing up for another round of seasonal appearances. Only this time he won’t have to dress in a green elf suit.