WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company, 323 pages, $25
IF YOU GO about your daily rounds in New York carrying a copy of David Sedaris’ new book, you will be popular—besieged, even.
"Where did you get that? I pre-ordered it and I don’t have it yet!"
Along the way—having promised to lend the book to everyone at the hair salon, and then spilling coffee on it and dog-earing the pages so frequently that it looks like a small accordion—you’ll meet the fans of Amy Sedaris, who joins her brother on the recordings of his books. These have their own cult following. (Yes, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is out in audio, too.)
You may have heard Mr. Sedaris yourself on Ira Glass’s radio show called This American Life. His voice sounds just like his writing.
It’s a little scary, thinking of people driving around listening to these essays, what with the wincing and cringing—body fluids! bugs! dirty hair! cadavers and cadaver parts!—what with the laughing out loud. Then there are the various pangs of recognition, delight, dismay and admiration.
David Sedaris doesn’t tell jokes. So I can’t simply lift a line or two out of his book and have it represent his humor. The essays are careful accretions of detail and incident that build to some kind of payoff, perhaps a laugh, perhaps a jolt of identification. The Sedaris genius is to be incredibly particular, not to mention peculiar, and yet take fantastic and rapid leaps to the universal.
His writing perfectly illustrates the English teacherish notion that giving specific examples allows the author to draw general conclusions: He’ll be telling some weird story, and all of a sudden, just at the end, it turns out not only to be about him, but also about you. He’s a master at evoking fellow feeling.
You tend to think about words when reading Mr. Sedaris, who himself may have pondered the distance between fan and fanatic, maybe that time in a YMCA dressing room in El Paso when a young man said to him, "Excuse me, but aren’t you …"
At the time, our author was naked. It’s a state you meet Mr. Sedaris in more than you meet, say, James Thurber, another humorist who mined his family for material. Indeed, in Naked (1997), one of his five previous books, Mr. Sedaris writes about his foray into formalized nudism.
In "The Smoking Section," the last essay in the new collection, he travels into territory so ineluctably grim there’s no way out: He goes to Hiroshima, while living in Japan, in order to stop smoking.
He allows us to recover, after a fashion, from that city’s memorial museum by listing some strange English from a hotel pamphlet’s section on safety. One paragraph is headed "When You Are Engulfed in Flames."
THERE ARE, and I am categorizing loosely, four varieties of essay in this collection: recent everyday experiences heightened by acute self-observation; satire; Sedaris family history; and bizarre extended exercises in participatory journalism.
These last would include that trip to Japan. If there’s a fly in the Sedaris ointment—and I’m not saying there is—it would be that his most poignant material comes from the time before he became a writer. Though there are some wonderful essays about his recent life, you can’t help suspecting that some of the time he’s doing things in order to write about them. (But maybe not. Maybe he’s just the kind of guy who feels compelled to try out that "external catheter currently being marketed to sports fans, truck drivers, and anyone who’s tired of searching for a bathroom.")
Imagine the horror vacuum when you have to fill up a blank page with something you first have to go out and do. You become, in effect, your own energetic spectator. It’s enough to send one back to bed.
Mr. Sedaris is much more disciplined than that. He learns languages. He lives on several continents. He undertakes lecture tours. He earns an excellent living, which he no longer disguises, as he tended to earlier on. (How long can one sustain the stance of the dropout, the dope fiend, the innocent abroad, when one is, for heaven’s sake, a regular contributor to The New Yorker?)
A MORDANT CRITIC of others, Mr. Sedaris is more scathing about himself than about anyone else, except possibly his father. All the time, he’s horribly observant. He sees things as they are.
"Most people would have found it grotesque," he writes about a large French spider, "but when you’re in love, nothing is so abstract or horrible it can’t be thought of as cute. It slayed me that she had eight eyes, and that none of them seemed to do her any good."
When all is said or read, there’s this: Mr. Sedaris is good at loving the world and its denizens, despite occasional fits of petty loathing, for which he punishes himself by telling us about them.
As for being loved, there’s his admirable partner, Hugh; his sisters; his friends; and all those people whizzing by you on the turnpike, pedal to the metal, hooting in delight.
"[You] had to laugh," David Sedaris writes about a Kabuki performance called Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, "but at the same time you couldn’t help being moved. And that, I think, is the essence of a good show." Ah, so.
Nancy Dalva reviews books regularly for The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.