I have long been a David Sedaris fan. On one family vacation a few years ago, my mom, stepdad, and I circulated two books among ourselves: David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Both had their hilarious, true-life virtues, but I’ll only focus on Sedaris for today. I recently re-read his most recent compendium of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which takes its title from a warning pamphlet that he read while in Tokyo.
Having heard Sedaris on audiobook, in person, and in various episodes of This American Life, I’ve become accustomed to his nasal, slightly Southern-accented voice. I can hear the cadences as I read the pages, which makes it funnier and more relatable to me. Although his isn’t a particularly resonant, pleasant voice to listen to, because all of the essays are first-person and autobiographical, it better sets the stage to see the world through his slightly warped perspective. (For example, this is a man who voluntarily spends several days watching medical examiners dissect human cadavers.)
If you’ve read Sedaris before, you know that most of his essays concern his bizarrely funny family, his drug-riddled youth (well, and adulthood), and his calm, accepting boyfriend named Hugh. Sedaris attempted various careers, such as dishwashing, housecleaning, and, most memorably, elfing, but writing is clearly where he belongs. It seems absurd that one person should have such a plethora of strange, uncomfortable, and humiliating experiences, but apparently, Sedaris has been capable of it. Or perhaps he’s just better able to identify these moments and can transform them into something bigger and connected to other moments or themes.
The most affecting essay in this collection concerns Sedaris’s across-the-street neighbor in Normandy, France, where he lives part-time. The neighbor was injured by a grenade as a child, and in the village he was described as “slow” and “gentle”; thus the surprise when he was taken away by the police for sexually molesting his step-grandchildren. Sedaris developed a happenstance friendship with the man, Jackie, after his release from prison, in part due to Sedaris’s seeming inability to say no or to turn someone down. But Sedaris and his boyfriend quickly became embarrassed by the connection, so Sedaris started to shun him, as the rest of the village had been doing. Jackie contracted esophageal cancer and died, although Sedaris met him one last time and shook his hand. Sedaris never attempts to defend Jackie for his actions, but he is strangely sympathetic to him and appears to be regretful for having shunned Jackie. It’s a piece that is spare of any melodrama and I found it more haunting and memorable than the other essays.
On balance, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is not Sedaris’s funniest essay collection. It seems more scattered than others, notably Me Talk Pretty One Day, which is my favorite Sedaris book. There’s a short story in the collection, and I feel that nonfiction (although Sedaris admits to embellishing here and there in his essays) is his stronger suit. Perhaps by now, Sedaris has mined his best material from his childhood, so it’s harder to pull together a cohesive collection. It’s entertaining, nonetheless, and if you haven’t read David Sedaris before, you should. But start with Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day, which are better collections of “greatest hits.”