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Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

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Distinguished silver screen actor Edmund Gwenn once jested that “dying is easy, comedy is difficult.” Perhaps that is why essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson stayed away from it –- the comedy, I mean. Pablo Neruda said that laughter is the language of the soul (except he said it in Spanish). G.K. Chesterton said that the ability to make light gave angels loft, and Twain called levity “the saving thing.” The ancient Greeks assigned comedy to a god and we can only assume their ancient prayer books opened with the one where a Dionysian Priestess walks into a bar. Humor is also a labor of love for writer and essayist David Sedaris.

David Sedaris arose as writer in the 1990s, but diligent research has uncovered he existed before then. Comedy is not Greek to him. Well, maybe just a little; he is the son of Greek and Protestant parents. He was born in Binghamton, New York and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and an alumnus of the world renown School of Art Institute of Chicago which has drawn other famous alumnus such as Walt Disney. Sedaris’ live readings of his work caught the attention of those in public radio and his subsequent delivery of the holiday-flavored “Santaland Diaries” on NPR’s Morning Edition became such a phenomenon it was re-gifted as a play. Then came his string of hits and bestsellers in the form of Barrel Fever, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim among others.

His newest work, When You Are Engulfed in Flames will have you stop, drop, and roll with laughter. In one episode of the memoirs the author tries on a prosthetic rump:

I don’t recall the product’s exact name, but it amounted to a fake padded butt, the shapely synthetic cheeks sewn into the lining of a generous brief. I put it on my Christmas list and was given a pair by my friend Jodi, who waited a few weeks before admitting she’d actually sent me a woman’s ass–in essence, a fanny.

I’ve heard of a posteriori analogies, but that was ridiculous. On the similar aesthetic of fashion Sedaris comments on the trend of pre-distressed clothing and specifically a favorite sweater that he’d purchased:

I didn’t dare tell her that the damage was intentional. The lengthy run across the left shoulder, the dozens of holes in the arms and torso; each was specifically placed by the design team. Ordinarily I avoid things that have been distressed but this sweater had been taken a step further and ruined. Having been destroyed it was now indestructible.

David Sedaris’ writing style and voice are well balanced. The seedy underbelly of life is contrasted with noble aspiration. It is all there. The misanthrope is juggled with the romantic in passages of rapturing turmoil, and his sanguine stories of youth coordinate perfectly with the bewildering world of the adult. He writes precociously, freely, and democratically. Despite his residence in France, David Sedaris is still a very American author.

But he is not without his critics. David Sedaris is deeply unconcerned with his reviewers but the feeling isn’t mutual. A reoccurring criticism of his work is that he often gets creative with his memories and the question of his nonfiction comes up. On the other hand, Proust categorized his work as fiction but his scholars and critics believed it anyway. So it just goes to show there is just no fooling some people.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames is a deserved bestseller and an uplifting and unpretentious work of nonfiction. It is published by Little, Brown and Company and is now available for purchase.

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About James O'Neil