June 18, 2008 | Comments ()

By Miscellaneous | Books | June 18, 2008 |


Readers familiar with the David Sedaris who investigated shit-stained towels in Naked will find that he’s matured significantly in his latest collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. This maturity, however, doesn’t make him any less funny; readers can still expect a healthy dose of laughter along with their introspection.

In these twenty-two essays, Sedaris writes not only about his wacky personal experiences (especially those that concern his family) but also about issues of love, loss, and death. Even the funniest pieces have an element of sadness in them, an awareness that a golden time in his life has ended. While his family (made famous in previous collections) does not play as central a role in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, when they do appear, it’s to humorous effect. Sedaris is often his funniest when recounting his childhood; “The Understudy” is classic Sedaris, who excels in his description of Mrs. Peacock, the babysitter from hell who enjoys nothing more than to have her back endlessly scratched by a Sedaris child wielding a monkey’s paw.

The people who populated his childhood are not the only targets; Hugh, his long-time boyfriend, makes several appearances as well. When discussing Hugh, Sedaris perfectly illustrates the love-hate dichotomy often found between two people who have been together forever. In “Keeping Up,” Sedaris describes how fast Hugh walks while Sedaris struggles to catch up. At these moments, Sedaris, lost and angry, considers ending the relationship before realizing how lost he’d be without Hugh. In another essay, Sedaris ponders the nature of their relationship in “All the Beauty You Will Ever Need.” Freed from the traditional roles that often confine heterosexual couples, Sedaris reflects that Hugh, who “might do the cooking, and actually wear an apron while he’s at it…also chops the firewood, repairs the hot-water heater, and could tear off my arm with no more effort than it takes to uproot a dandelion.” Sedaris, for his part, seems only to do the writing in that relationship, and not much else. His dependence on Hugh is further illustrated by “Old Faithful,” when Hugh lances a boil, prompting Sedaris to label him “Sir Lance-a-lot.”

However, it’s neither Hugh nor the Sedaris family that is the most frequent target of the author’s wit - it’s Sedaris himself. His fear of death pulses throughout the collection, but never more so than in “Memento Mori,” when a skeleton plagues the poor author with revelations of mortality. Two essays, “That’s Amore” and “The Man in the Hut,” describe his inability to do more for two deservedly lonely people before they died. Other pieces are more light-hearted, as in “Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?,” which presents his rules for dressing, a skill Sedaris has never been able to master. (One such lesson: “Guys look like asses in Euro-style glasses.”) In another, Sedaris discusses his fear of conversation at the same time he offers a subtle defense of his writing.

This essay, “Of Mice and Men,” is one of the strongest in the collection. What begins wittily enough (Sedaris explains how a fear of silence impels him to research topics for conversation) becomes a metaphor for the memoir. After reading about an unbelievable occurrence, Sedaris delights in telling others about the event, asserting its veracity when listeners object such a story cannot be true. Later, he learns to his chagrin he has mistakenly inflated the story; nevertheless, he maintains, the core of the story was the same: “Despite my embroidery, the most important facts hold true.” Those critics who accuse Sedaris of exaggerating for effect would do well to remember this idea. (To further clarify matters, Sedaris begins the collection with an author’s note that describes the collection’s events as “realish.”)

“Of Mice and Men” serves as an example of all of When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Embroidered or not, Sedaris delivers profundities that are impossible to refute, and that they are filtered through a comic lens is only to our benefit. While many may lament the lack of hilarity that characterized his earlier works, this older, wiser point of view has much to offer in its own right.


Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

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Life in the Smoking Section

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris / Jennifer McKeown

Books | June 18, 2008 | Comments ()



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