Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Not Hilarious, But Who Cares?: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris


When You Are Engulfed in Flames
by David Sedaris

Note: I meant to write a short footnote about the problems associated with reading David Sedaris books in public, but accidentally wound up posting one of my most Sedaris-esque life experiences here. While I could hope this would land me an appearance on TAL, I believe they already did a segment on the disturbing lives of relay operators.

Even as people rush out by the thousands to purchase the new book by NPR darling and New Yorker enfant terrible, the needling has already begun: he's mined all of his material, Hugh isn't as funny as Lou, Lisa, and the Rooster, and what if he exaggerated his stories?

On the first point, yes, he has possibly run low on stories about his family, but this new collection certainly isn't short on new stories to tell about, you know, his life as a grown-up.

On the second, it's true that I experienced no moments where I truly embarrassed myself while reading the book in a public place.*

However, I smiled broadly on many occasions, in an airport, no less, and no one smiles broadly in an airport unless they are reuniting with a long lost friend or unless they are reading a David Sedaris book. And besides, I don't require Sedaris to be a nonstop hoot; in fact, I rather like his explorations of longterm monogamy and find the periodic one-liners and nice turns of phrase to be as satisfying as the story of Dinah the Christmas Whore.

As for the third, I truly couldn't give a shit.

But getting to the collection itself, I found myself enjoying Sedaris most in the essays when he appears to be at his most solipsistic, as in "Crybaby," where he is seated in first class with a passenger who is loudly grieving for his dead mother, or in "Town and Country," where he finds himself passing judgment on a lewd cab driver. In his essays, Sedaris is excellent at whipping himself into a good, self-conscious, yet self-righteous lather before turning the hose on himself in a way that exposes more generally applicable human shortcomings.

However, my favorite essay in the collection is "Road Trips," which begins when Sedaris goes to a function back in his old North Carolina neighborhood hosted by the family of a flamboyantly gay teenager. Having come of age before the existence of high school GSA groups, when coming out was murky, uncharted territory, Sedaris marvels at this comparative openness in a passage that contains my favorite line from the book:

When I was a kid, you'd be burned alive for such talk. Being a homosexual was unthinkable, and so you denied it, and found a girlfriend who was willing to settle for the sensitive type. On dates, you'd remind her that sex before marriage was just that, sex: what dogs did in the front yard."

From here, Sedaris springboards into a creepily funny story about the first people he comes out to, a pair of aging swingers who pick him up hitchhiking. This leads to another story, which Sedaris also sets up as creepily funny; however, the essay's last few paragraphs reveal far more, and do so in the most unexpected, poignant, best writing Sedaris has done yet. I loved it, and have come back to it more than a few times since first reading the book.

It won't split your guts, but then, there wouldn't be such a fuss about David Sedaris if all he did was tell funny stories. In this collection, Sedaris allows humor to become the background music for the other aspects of his writing that keep us coming back.
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* I was in a 2-week job orientation for exactly the kind of position Sedaris might have held during his cleaning service/moving company days, and the orientation was filled with boring speakers and lots of downtime in between them. During one of these, I was reading the essay "Jesus Shaves" from Me Talk Pretty One Day, and came to the part when Sedaris's fellow students in a language class attempt to share how people in their country celebrate Easter in stunted French vocabulary.

At the line, "They nail the good man to two morsels of wood," I completely lost it, and then was called upon to explain to the rest of the class what exactly was so funny.

As a postscript, the position was as an operator for a telecommunications service, ostensibly for the deaf, where I would have messages typed to me by a caller, then relay them to the other party. However, this being 2001, they had not yet figured out how to bill for these calls. Quickly, people around the world realized that they could use our service to obtain free long distance, so long as they weren't particular about the voice coming through on the other end of the line.

And that is how I came to be the madam of a Pakistani brothel for a day.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I just picked this up the other day. I've only read some of it, but I find myself skipping around more than I usually do with his books.