‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’ presents the quirky sensibility of essayist David Sedaris

September 12, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 12, 2014

David Sedaris is a comic essayist whose most frequent subject is himself. Raised in Raleigh, N.C., by an alcoholic housewife and the son of Greek immigrants, Sedaris himself was an aimless drug-using alcoholic artist wannabe for years before developing a career as a popular writer.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris’s 2008 collection, is his sixth book, and it’s up to his usual standards. The various essays look at outrageous episodes from his childhood, adulthood and present life; often, the essays touch upon more than one of these periods.

A frequent trope is Sedaris as misfit. “Road Trips” describes some of his awkward early attempts to grapple with his homosexuality; “Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?” is a catalog of the author’s sartorial follies; “Keeping Up” compares the discomfort he’s witnessed among foreigners visiting Paris (where he’s lived for some time) with his own misadventures as a tourist with his boyfriend, Hugh.

Three pieces stand out. One is “That’s Amore,” Sedaris’s essay about his relationship with the irascible Helen, a fellow resident in their Greenwich Village apartment building in the 1990s.

The first time I went to Normandy I stayed for three weeks. After returning, I went straight to Helen’s, but she refused to hear about it. “The French are faggots,” she said. As evidence, she brought up Bernard, who was born in Nice and lived on the fourth floor.

“Bernard’s not a homosexual,” I told her.

“Maybe not, but he’s filthy. Did you ever see his apartment?”


“OK then, so shut up.” This was her way of saying that the argument was over and that she had won.

“What I Learned” is the book’s only piece of fiction, a parodic speech in the voice of a pompous Ivy League graduate whose college years more or less took place in the prehistoric era. (“This chapel, for instance — I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks.”) I generally don’t enjoy Sedaris’s fiction, but “What I Learned” is light on its feet and amusing.

The book concludes with an 80-page-long essay, “The Smoking Section,” that centers on a three-month-long sojourn Sedaris and his boyfriend spent in Tokyo as part of the author’s attempt to quit smoking. This piece plays to the writer’s strengths: There are recollections of his dissolute young adulthood and accounts of awkward encounters with an unfamiliar language, culture and customs. (The book’s title is drawn from this essay, which lists unusual English phrases that Sedaris sees in Japan.)

The one impediment to my enjoyment of this book was my recurring sense that, although I’m positive that I’ve never previously read this volume, many of the tales were familiar. I suppose I’ve heard a few of them on the radio. (Certainly “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle” has been featured on one public radio program or another.) Still, this doesn’t actually detract from the excellence (and frequent weirdness) of the writing. It was a pleasure to return to Sedaris’s quirky sensibility, and I look forward to doing so in the future.

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