When You Are Engulfed in Flames
As a writer, David Sedaris relates personal experiences that he exaggerates for comic effect and from which he draws insights about the human condition. A witty and wry observer of everything from natural childbirth to forensic pathology, Sedaris has earned a loyal following, periodic speaking tours, and various awards. Using the first-person voice, Sedaris unabashedly describes himself self-critically, not just admitting but perhaps magnifying his shortcomings. This sometimes comes across simply as self-deprecating humor, but cumulatively Sedaris’s essays create a picture of a man who is manipulative, wheedling, lazy, greedy, petty, dishonest, arrogant, and hypercompetitive. Even in stories intended to be funny, these revelations can at times make it hard for the reader to feel sympathy for Sedaris.
Sedaris’s writing is defined by a deadpan delivery, exquisite word choice, and colorful imagery. The first of thesea narrative voice that is composed and straight-facedbecomes itself a source of humor as his stories become increasingly absurd, as when he describes in some detail an “external catheter” that is marketed to people who desire to sit through an entire football game without having to get up to go to the bathroom. His writing is also defined by a precise vocabulary and a good feel for vernacular that allows him to convey experiences and feelings with precise shading that comes alive for the reader. He describes a flight during which he sat next to a richly dressed senior couple whose conversation was filled with foul-mouthed complaints about the airline: “It was as if they’d kidnapped the grandparents from a Ralph Lauren ad and forced them into a David Mamet play.” Sedaris’s imagery is always evocative: a hotel room for smokers that “smells like a burning mummy”; a woman with hair “the color of a new penny”; the difference between a regular and a “mild” cigarette is “the difference between being kicked by a donkey and being kicked by a donkey that has socks on.”
The essays in When You Are Engulfed in Flames can at times be slightly weightier than those in Sedaris’s previous collections. Still, the style and attitude that built his reputation in previous volumes remain largely the same. In this sixth of his published collections of essays, Sedaris focuses primarily on three areas: his childhood and coming-of-age experiences; his life (mainly living in France) with his longtime partner, Hugh; and his efforts to quit smoking.
In his previous volumes, Sedaris’s most poignant humor is drawn from his childhood. The son of a Greek Orthodox father and a Protestant mother, Sedaris and his five siblings grew up in the 1960’s in Raleigh, North Carolina. His past experiences have provided rich material for Sedaris to train his wit on suburban life, family relations, alcohol and drug abuse, sex, school, and myriad other topics. In the current volume, however, Sedaris offers only one story exclusively about his childhoodan especially rich and entertaining topic in many of the essays in earlier collections. In the single childhood essay in the current volume“The Understudy”Sedaris describes the time his parents went away for a week and left the eleven-year-old David and his sisters with a lazy and tyrannical “sixty-year-old woman who was not just heavy but fat, and moved as if each step might be her last.” It’s difficult to know which details in the story are genuine. Was this woman really dropped off at Sedaris’s house in a jalopy driven by a shirtless teenager? Did she really cook nothing but Sloppy Joes for them the entire week? Did she really tell them “First rule is that nobody touches nothing, not nobody and not for no reason”? However, separating factual details from fictional ones and slight exaggerations from outright fabrications misses the point of Sedaris’s work. Each story illuminates some aspect of humanityespecially the shortcomings and failings in interactions with one...
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