September 2nd, 2011


When You Are Engulfed In Flames

When I started reading David Sedaris' essay collections back in the early '00s, one of the reasons I found them so funny--sometimes laugh out loud, sometimes grin and nod, but always funny--is because Sedaris is fully aware of how petty, jaded, and spoiled he is. He has no illusions about his own privileges or shortcomings, and that's where so much of the humor comes from. His fifth collection, When You Are Engulfed In Flames, is no exception. Only Sedaris could make an essay about how his partner Hugh walks faster than he does come off not only as hilarious, but also universal, as if we all have a partner named Hugh who walks so far ahead it's as if he's ashamed to be seen with us.

There isn't a bad piece in the bunch, but if I had to choose favorites, the first that springs to mind is "That's Amore," which chronicles Sedaris' experiences with an old battleaxe of a neighbor named Helen, a judgmental hag who swears like a sailor and belittles everyone, but with whom Sedaris manages to strike up a hesitant friendship. It's so fully realized, and Helen is such an amazing, vital character, that this one could be a feature film in its own right.

I was also particularly fond of "Memento Mori," in which Sedaris buys an actual human skeleton, the kind one finds in med school classrooms, for Hugh as a Christmas present. Subsequently hung from the ceiling in the corner of their bedroom, the skeleton becomes a foil for Sedaris, a constant and supernaturally chatty reminder of his own mortality.

And then of course there's "The Smoking Section," the final, novella-length essay that, as a chronicle of Sedaris finally quitting smoking, had special resonance for me. I found myself nodding in agreement with many of his observations, and sometimes even growing angry at him for not figuring out fast enough just how much better off he is without smoking. But his triumph reminded me of my own, I suppose, and I closed the book with a grin and a nod, thinking, perhaps wishfully, "That David Sedaris, he's just like me."

If you haven't read Sedaris, I highly recommend him. When You Are Engulfed In Flames is as fine a place to start as any. There's no need to read his collections in chronological order, though there's no harm in it either, and they're all well worth your time.

I am also hugely bitter when it comes to the Sedaris family. Between David and his sister Amy Sedaris (of "Strangers With Candy" fame), there's far too much talent on display. Though when I say bitter I think I mean jealous, as part of me wishes I had been born into their family too, if only so I could spend more time with them.