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David Sedaris
When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 9780-316-14347-9
Publication Date: 01-03-2008
325 Pages; $25.99
Date Reviewed: 07-04-2009

Index:  Non-Fiction

You can rely on David Sedaris. He's going to tell you stories about his life that you'll be able to relate to and they will make you laugh. He's done it time and time again, in previous books and on This American Life, and likely in person on one of his reading or lecture tours. 'When You Are Engulfed in Flames' keeps any promise that Sedaris has made by virtue of the quality of his previous work, but branches out in new directions with equal success.

Yes, you'll find a lot of work in the style you know and probably love. Sedaris manages to mix up childhood recollections with events in his adult life, finding through-lines and stories as well as scenes of gut-wrenching embarrassment that will make the reader laugh out loud. Two stories from his childhood, "The Understudy" and "This Old House" offer perfect examples of this style, creating characters you'll not soon forget and scenes of cringe-worthy embarrassment that will leave readers in stitches.

Stitches figure prominently in "The Monster Mash," a work of journalism best summed up as David Sedaris visits the morgue. "Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?" is a piece written for Esquire about explorations in fashion, and includes the story of the "Stadium Pal," a portable catheter attached to a plastic bag that allows men to urinate while watching football games without having to get up. "Memento Mori" is a full-size human skeleton he buys for his boy friend, Hugh. This proves to be a present with more lasting effect on David than Hugh. These little slices of life are impeccably written. Sedaris knows how to hook the reader, deliver a story and is a particularly fine prose writer. You'll find enough great writing here to more than justify the hardcover price of the book. You'll find work you'll remember long after the cover is closed.

But 'When You Are Engulfed In Flames' offers more than this, in some unexpected pieces that are particularly of note for Sedaris as a writer. "What I Learned," originally written for The New Yorker, seems at first like a typical Sedaris story, spun out as a speech to a graduating class of Princeton and referring back to his own time there. But it’s considerably more over-the-top than his usual work, almost jarringly so. Oh, it's hilarious all right, but it is also definitely different, more of a deliberately Tall Tale, Sedaris-style. It's not quite fiction, but it thinks seriously about being fiction.

Then there is the closing, a very long piece titled, "The Smoking Section." Almost everything else in this book clocks in at ten pages, max, but here you've got a full-blown Sedaris novella, so to speak, about his efforts to quite smoking while relocating to Japan. It's part travelogue, part confessional and yes, it is written in more bite-size segments. Sedaris's investment in experimentation pays out well, offering just as much humor, a very entertaining story line and a work that seems fuller, deeper and yet is just as funny as everything else he writes. Both of these experiments will strike readers of Sedaris as different in a good way. He can clearly work his regular terrain with an effortless ease, but these two pieces show that there are literary as well as life surprises Sedaris has yet to explore.

If you know Sedaris though his previous works or his work on This American Life, you'll find plenty in 'When You Are Engulfed In Flames' that is familiar and entertaining. You'll also find some significant stylistic deviations and experiments that work just as well as his tried-and-true work. Mostly however, you'll find a truly unique major American writer and artist in top form, turning low humor into high art.

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