David Sedaris’ Latest Literary Gem

13 Oct

When you are engulfed in flames, put out the fire by rolling on the ground in laughter.   Such is the lesson implied from reading David Sedaris’ latest collection of semi-autobiographical essays.  “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” contains 22 humorous and provocative stories ranging in topics from trying to buy a human skeleton to developing a relationship with a spider and even using music to drive birds nuts.  Although most of the stories have been previously published in The New Yorker or read on This American Life, the book is still entertaining the second time around and continues to be so even after the millionth read.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames © Copyright 2008 Little, Brown and Company

Sedaris’ essays are typically autobiographical, focusing on his childhood in South Carolina, the nutty Sedaris clan, coming to terms with his homosexuality, working odd jobs to support his drug habit, and living in France with his boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick.

Time named Sedaris “Humorist of the Year” in 2001 after the overwhelming popularity of his third book, “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”  His fifth book, “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” was a New York Times #1 Nonfiction Bestseller in 2004.  This set the bar pretty high for his sixth and latest book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.”

Thankfully Sedaris has successfully cleared the high jump, as his latest gem makes more social and cultural commentary through his stories than in previous books but is still as funny as ever.

The best of this commentary in “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” is the final essay, “The Smoking Section.”  When Sedaris decides to quit smoking once and for all, he and Hamrick move to Japan for a few months.  At 83 pages it is a bit long for a Sedaris essay, but this story demonstrates why Sedaris’ work is so popular and how he has developed as a writer over the past decade.   Mirroring the essays in “Me Talk Pretty One Day” about Sedaris’ attempts to learn French, Sedaris hilariously accounts in “The Smoking Section” how difficult it was for him to learn Japanese.  The tone of this story becomes darker than any of Sedaris’ previous essays when he writes about visiting Hiroshima.  This makes the story more fascinating and shows that, even at 51 years old, Sedaris’ writing has matured.

Although his writing may have progressed, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” contains the light-hearted, sarcastically witty stories Sedaris fans love.   The first two essays are some of the strongest in the book, which pulls the reader into a Sedaris addiction and makes him crave to read more.  “It’s Catching,” the first essay, cashes in on the popularity of germophobia with a story about when Sedaris’ paranoid sister, Lisa, learns that Hamrick’s mother had been infested by a guinea worm in the late 1960s.  In the second essay, “Keeping Up,” Sedaris reflects on his relationship with Hamrick as he tries to keep up with his boyfriend’s power walking en route to a dingo exhibit at an Australian zoo.

“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” contains more stories involving Hamrick than any of his previous books.  While these essays are still enjoyable, the most memorable stories are usually ones involving the kooky Sedaris family, especially his batty sister, Amy Sedaris, known for her leading role in the Strangers with Candy movie and television show.   Only three of the 22 essays in this book are about Sedaris’ family, a disappointing proportion to avid Sedaris readers.

Also disappointing was the fifth essay, “Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?”  Although the essay makes thoughtful and funny observations of Sedaris’ experiences with personal accessories (ranging from glasses to fake padded butts to a male catheter), it is too random and disconnected to be enjoyable.  Unlike all the other essays in “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” this one does not tell a coherent narrative and really doesn’t belong in the book.

Despite the few disappointments, I bet most people will enjoy reading “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” Of the twenty or so people I know who have read any Sedaris book only one dislikes his writing.  Sedaris’ stories are appealing to a wide audience because not only is he funny, but he writes colloquially.   In “Road Trips,” Sedaris writes,  “There would come times in later years when I would have sex against my wishes.  No one forced me, exactly—it wasn’t that.  I just wasn’t sure how to say ‘Go.  Get out.  I don’t want this.’”  The casual writing style makes Sedaris’ writing more engaging and more relatable, while also adding to the humor Sedaris is known most for.

Devoted Sedaris fans as well as those unfamiliar with his work will find “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” to be an amusing and intriguing collection of essays perfect for bedtime reading or a refreshing break from the hum-drum of everyday life.  It’s a worthy follow-up to “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” and, if the final essay is any indication, there are still great (maybe even better) stories to come from Sedaris in the future.

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One Response to “David Sedaris’ Latest Literary Gem”

  1. Anonymous June 11, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    Hey, nice site you have here! Keep up the excellent work!

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