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When You Are Engulfed in Flames

by David Sedaris

      When You Are Engulfed in Flames is David Sedaris’ latest collection of essays, most of which have been previously published. Sedaris received some criticism of this book because little of it is new, and because much of the writing reflects somberly - not comically - on human irony. Oh, there is plenty of funny, funny stuff in there. But, like persons objecting to any variation of their favorite dish, some readers didn’t care for the toned down humor of some of his new material. Maybe because I am new to David Sedaris, I enjoyed the range of experience revealed in, and provoked by the book.

In When You Are Engulfed in Flames, he reveals his fashion guidelines ("I wear shorts only in Normandy, which is basically West Virginia without the possums"), and introduces us to his former neighbor, Helen ("Like the rats that spilled from the gangway, she was exactly the type of creature I’d expected to find living in New York"). Sedaris’ writing often touches on socially awkward situations where he finds himself either clueless or surprisingly resourceful at handling them.

The author’s writing style is so unobtrusive and wonderful that the story comes to the fore, never tripped up by pretentious words, awkward syntax and rhythms, or redundancy. His tone is not acerbic or mean-spirited like some so-called humorists of the human condition, and I appreciate that. The author was able to make his world accessible to me - a person who’s never been to Europe, Japan, or even suffered the babysat experience of a Mrs. Peacock.

The more somber reflections of Sedaris’ book center mostly on the time period he spent in Japan, where he went to quit smoking, but even that is not without humor. The particularly vulgar essay “Town & Country” would have been a good one to leave out of this mostly inoffensive collection.

Sedaris is not arrogant about his homosexuality nor apologetic, and refers frequently to his partner, Hugh. Profanity gushes in some essays, and is nonexistent in others. He relates anecdotes of his (former) drug, alcohol, and cigarette addictions without displaying remorse. He neither condemns nor excuses himself; he merely reveals. Still, these themes are ubiquitous, and will no doubt offend some readers.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames seems to be a contemplative work, a concise abstract of a life for evaluative purpose. I may be completely off base, but I sense a coming transition in Sedaris’ work. Whatever the case, I look forward to his next offering.

The Book

Little, Brown & Company / Hachette Book Group USA
June 2008
0316143472 / 978-0316143479
Nonfiction / Humor
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NOTE: References to homosexual sex, bestiality, language, and drug abuse.

The Reviewer

Deb Kincaid
Reviewed 2008
© 2008