Book: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

Very good; a little more poignant than usual for Mr Sedaris

David Sedaris
When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Little, Brown, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0-316-14347-9
ISBN-10: 0-316-14347-2
323 pages

I have previously (1, 2, 3) said of David Sedairs that he is a talented and funny storyteller and memoirist. Indeed, a lot of what I've had to say about Mr Sedaris's previous books applies as well to his recent book When You Are Engulfed in Flames. (The title is from a disaster-preparedness booklet he finds in a hotel room in Hiroshima.)

This book is a collection of 22 short pieces of memoir that have mostly been previously published in magazines. As usual with Mr Sedaris, the raw material for his stories is the difficult relationships he has with his family, his boyfriend, himself, and the rest of the world. In most folks' hands, that would be a recipe for tedious whining, but Mr Sedaris's prose always sparkles and his observations are always sharp. Take, for example, the last half of the first paragraph of the story "Keeping Up" which is largely about arguing. Speaking of the street where he lives in Paris, he says:

    It's short, this street, no more or less attractive than
    anything else in the area, yet vacationing Americans
    are drawn here, compelled for some reason to stand
    beneath my office window and scream at one another.
    (p. 11)

That's a sentiment that could be expressed in any number of dull ways, but Mr Sedaris finds a way of presenting the image that makes me smile even on the third and fourth reading.

The story "This Old House" is about Mr Sedaris's life in a rooming house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as a young man. He had persuaded himself that the sabbily-antique atmosphere was perfect for him. Alas, time catches up and he has to move on. He ends the story with:

    An apartment of my own was unthinkable at that time of
    my life, and even if I'd found an affordable one it
    wouldn't have satisfied my fundamental need to live in
    a communal past, or what I imagine the past to be like: a
    world full of antiques. What I could never fathom, and
    still can't really, is that at one point all those things were
    new. The wheezing Victrola, the hulking davenport --
    how were they any different from the eight-track tape
    player or my parents' Scandinavian dining room set?
    Given enough time, I guess anything can look good. All it
    has to do is survive. (p. 48)

And that sort of sentiment is reasonably typical for this book. The emotions evoked here are often more subtle than in Mr Sedaris's previous books and the stories are more likely to be a bit poignant rather than hilarious. The story "That's Amore", about an unusual and somewhat prickly neighbor Mr Sedaris had in New York, ends with her in the hospital. The last story in the book, "The Smoking Section", is about an extended trip to Japan that Mr Sedaris took in the hopes that a change of scene would help him to quit smoking. It has some explicitly funny moments and Mr Sedaris's descriptions are evocative enough to make me want to visit there again.

The book is a fine one. I could have wished for a few more laughs, but I'm willing to enjoy Mr Sedaris's poignant moments too.

Posted: Fri - November 7, 2008 at 02:01 PM   Main   Category: