Strangers With Pokin Sticks

In this spoof-crazy world, it's hard to find subjects worth lampooning that haven't been lampooned before, but Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert pull it off deliciously in a new book that satirizes a literati infatuated with finding America's lost soul in its small towns.

Sedaris, the sister of humorous commentator David Sedaris, met and began collaborating with Dinello and Colbert at Chicago's Second City before the trio went on to create and star in the Comedy Central cable channel's first live-action series, Strangers With Candy. In that parody of afterschool TV specials, Sedaris played an unattractive bisexual former prostitute and drug peddler who at age 40 returns to high school after a stint behind bars to start her life anew. Dinello and Colbert (now of The Daily Show fame) portrayed teachers engaged in a secret gay affair.

Their new book and stage show, Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not, does for literary journalism and small-town life what Strangers With Candy did for afterschool specials and high-school life. Author Russell Hokes (get it?) worked for the federal Department of Transportation painting center lines on interstates until he locked horns with a foreman in a dispute over the meaning of sick day. So he becomes a writer, worrying that with all the skiing, hunting and "hobnobbing with the New York literotica," he'll have scant time to put pen to paper.

The fictional character's first work of fiction—his rsum—lands him an interview with Hyperion Books, the real-life publisher of Wigfield. Hokes quickly turns the pitch-meeting tables and gets the bookworms to sell him on the warmed-over idea of exploring the shattered illusions and brave lives of those who still reside in America's small towns.

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After burning through most of his $50,000 advance without banging out any of his contractually obligated 50,000 words, Hokes is about to skip when a "Wigfield's Hottest Ladies" sign off an interstate directs him to a quarter-mile strip of land surrounded by a rusting chain-link fence bearing a different sign: DO NOT ENTER BY ORDER OF THE CORPS OF ENGINEERS.

Colorful Wigfielders (from left): Cinnamon, Burchal Sawyer, Raven,
Dillard Rankin, Mayor Charles Halstead
and High Pristess Thea.

Hokes ignores the warning—and he's obviously not the first, for squatting within the unfriendly confines are a scattered few who have no Social Security numbers or ZIP codes, pay no taxes, erect no schools and reside in ramshackle structures that violate every known health and safety ordinance. These welded-together double-wides sit in the dry bed of a river that's become an illegal toxic dumping site responsible for ground temperatures hovering at a constant and pleasant 78 degrees in the winter—but an unbearable 140 degrees in the summer. Electricity is jacked from power lines serving a legitimate town nearby, and the squatters run businesses catering to horny truckers, the dead or any combination of the two. We're talking classy joints with names like Tit Time Show Palace, Sawyers Used Auto Parts Headquarters and Graveyard Emporium, the Twat Shop, the Rigid Squirrel, the Bacon Strip, the Topless Car Wash, the Topless 10-Minute Oil Change, the All-Nude Fix-a-Flat, Abra-Cadavre's Morgue and Gentlemen's Club (formerly the Croak-us Poke-us) and the Library of Cumgress. Wigfield has three mayors, three police chiefs and at least one longtime serial killer who only strikes at night when he/she isn't slaughtering during the day.

Unfortunately, this little slice of paradise is in danger of extinction thanks to a state government bent on dismantling a dam facing Wigfield to restore a salmon run. This gives Hokes an angle that will please his publishers: the threat to small-town America by callous government intrusion. To fill in the blanks—and the 50,000 words—he interviews the common folk who make Wigfield tick, including a police chief who's something of a firebug; a mayor who's something of a retarded chocoholic; a lesbian witch high priestess; a junkyard king whose lot is restocked whenever a new car rolls into town; a pair of wrinkled and near-hairless ladies in their late 40s who both claim to be the town's oldest resident; and a stripper who dances in an oil drum and does not allow customers to touch her, although they can pay an extra 10 bucks for a "pokin' stick."

Fans of The Daily Show and the late, great Strangers With Candy will get a kick out of figuring out which members of the writing trio wrote which sections of Wigfield. Sedaris, Dinello and Colbert also pose as the book's characters in bizarre portraits shot by noted designer Todd Oldham.

But you don't have to have seen—or even liked—Strangers or The Daily Show to appreciate Wigfield, which the trio is currently presenting on East Coast stages. The really funny thing about satire is that amid the sophomoria, there resides as much truth as in your run-of-the-mill 600-pager on America's lost soul. At least you'll laugh out loud with this one.

Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert; Hyperion Books. Paperback, 205 pages, $22.95.

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