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When You Are Engulfed by Flames by David Sedaris

By Pereka | Books | November 25, 2009 |

By Pereka | Books | November 25, 2009 |

After closing the back cover on this book, I sat with pursed lips.

“Huh,” I said to my roommate’s cat. “David must be getting old.”

I don’t say this because of his persistent comments about his growing shrub of back hair or because his smoking habit can be counted in decades rather than years. It was the theme that permeated the soft, well-chosen words to the barking paragraphs dedicated to the subject: death. Disease, destruction, decay. Death.

“Maybe that’s what happens when you enter middle age? Is that what you think about?” I threw these statements questions at the cat, which turned away and began snoring. When you’re an aging feline that has survived a bout with cancer, you don’t waste your time on a human who doesn’t feed you when there’s valuable sleep to be had.

So I sat alone, sure that I had nothing in common with a man thirty years my senior whose thoughts have turned to death. What, exactly, does a 24-year-old have to worry about anyway? I go to bed with the absolute assurance that I will wake up in the morning. I neglect to eat properly because my body will easily recover. I hop in the car with the sense of immortality that develops during the teenage years and has yet to be squashed by the realities of life. Death? Me? Pah!

Reflecting on this, however, I find that’s not exactly true — I do think of death. Quite often, actually. For example, I’ve already left instructions for my funeral, an amalgam of police services my father attends and the Jewish ceremonies I’ve been to (picture bagpipes and chocolate fountains.) Before my first trip to Israel, I pondered writing what amounted to my will and sealing it in an envelope to be opened upon my death. I later scrapped this idea, deeming it a little too dramatic even for me, but left my mother instructions in case they had to send my remains home in a box.

I’ve thought about the best death. It would have to be quick with a minimal amount of sheer terror. While flying to Beijing during an intense lightening storm, I decided that a plane crash was not the way to go. I similarly crossed shark attack, cholera, and gangrene off the list for various reasons. At the time of writing, I’ve settled on a quick meteor strike to the head — a quick death and one that will be a family story for generations.

With this in mind, I flipped back into Sedaris’s essays, reading them again. Suddenly, the author’s “death” takes on a capital letter. Death stalks quietly through the book, sometimes skipping essays, only to slam you with full force in others. “Memento Mori” is one in which Death truly makes his presence known. Upon a second reading, I could feel him shivering down my spine, taking up residence in my pelvis, and tingling in my marrow. Also, skeletons hanging in your bedroom? Ew.

Is When You Are Engulfed in Flames as depressing as I’ve made it out to be? No, of course not. There are plenty instances of classic Sedaris wordplay and self deprecation. And it could very well be that I’ve spent too much time being introspective about the whole thing. Perhaps I’ll also come to a better understanding when I reach that age. Would I read this again? Absolutely, but not as a pick-me-up.

I won’t be asking that damn cat for advice again, either.

Verdict: Buy it if you have a Sedaris collection. Otherwise, break out that library card.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read. For more of Pereke’s reviews, check out her blog, Writing in Wax.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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