Thursday, March 19, 2009


Some years ago, I met David Sedaris at a book signing. He was smoking. Even though the building was non-smoking, he lit one after another - a perfect show of compulsive behavior. And I loved him for it, because I smoked compulsively too. Now we were compadres, our own little subculture of people who bucked the trends and refused to conform, even if it killed us.

In his latest collection of personal essays, When You Are Engulfed In Flames Sedaris discusses skeletons as home decoration, his hairy back as proof that God does not exist, Japanese hotel signs that translate "In Case of Fire" directions as "When You Are Engulfed in Flames"; befriending spiders in Normandy and bringing them on vacation to Paris; and quitting smoking. I am truly thankful that I finally quit too because I couldn't bear the loss of Sedaris in my smoke-filled clubhouse. He would be missed too much.

It's a difficult argument to say that David Sedaris is underrated. After all, he sells out his book readings like a rock star and he has almost single-handedly revived the personal essay genre. But when you ask people why they like his books, they invariably say because he's funny. And he is funny. (I strongly recommend you do not do what I did and listen to his books on audiotape in the car. I laughed so hard I missed the exit ramp on the expressway.) But many writers are funny and yet, there's only one Sedaris.

Between self-deprecating stories and a droll delivery, Sedaris chronicles for us the very small things that make up a life. Often a litany of disappointments ( he's the stupidest student in his Japanese class; he misunderstands the doctor so he sits in the waiting room in his underpants; he outswims an obese woman with Down Syndrome and he brags about it...) David Sedaris reveals all the little human imperfections and limitations that stop us from being what we think we should be. We are selfish and petty and ignorant and Lord knows we are addicted to everything but somehow... we make it through. It's as if Sedaris is telling us that our humanity is found in our faults, not our strengths. And this is what makes him more than just a humor writer. The joke is never the point. Life is the point.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames may seem like a collection of unrelated stories, but it's not. Amidst the subtle references to smoke and fire and illness and death, Sedaris let's us watch his path from an outcast who starts smoking at 20, adds alcohol and dope to his bag of addictions, and then slowly learns to beat his demons. Approaching 50, he finally quits smoking although it takes a three month vacation to Japan and $20,000 to do it. "I'm middle- aged," he says, "and, for the first time in thirty years, I feel invincible."

How can you not like this guy? He might have just started feeling invincible lately, but I've thought that of him for quite a while.

Click here for materials written by David Sedaris. And if you want to give yourself an extra treat, listen to the audiotape of his books which he reads. Just stay off the expressways.


Karen Mc said...

My introduction to Sedaris was his hilarious essay about trying to explain Easter to non-Christians in his French class. If you can hear him read it, it's even funnier, particularly his attempts (and those of his classmates) to describe both the religious significance of Easter and cultural traditions like the "Easter Bunny." (And I say this as a person of deep religious faith who takes the mystery of Easter very seriously) Find it in the book "Me Talk Pretty One Day."

Laura A. said...

My first exposure to David Sedaris may have been the same essay Karen's talking about--I'm not quite sure since I only heard part of it. But it was a hilarious bit about American Christmas traditions in contrast to those in other countries--about how we think the traditions in other countries are strange, pointing out how bizarre some of ours must seem to others. This was on the radio while I was waiting for the L and I only caught part of it. I stood on the train platform laughing like a fool, hoping no one would think I was crazy.

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