Review

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

by David Sedaris

By
now, David Sedaris is a household name for anyone who listens to
“This American Life” on NPR or reads the New
Yorker
religiously. I first came upon the author when my
cousin read me his SantaLand Diaries. Because I do not enjoy being
read to aloud, I would look over her shoulder and silently read
along (which turned out to be a bit ahead), and then wait for her
to get to the punchlines so that I could laugh out loud at the
correct moments. The laughing out loud wasn’t hard to do, but
the waiting for my cousin to get there was. It was the funniest
thing I had read in a good long while. I have never heard
“This American Life,” but I have since read many of his
essays, both in his previous works of collected essays and those
that have been published in the New Yorker.

WHILE YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES is Sedaris’s sixth book, and
it opens with a bang but slowly loses steam until the long essay at
the end. “The Smoking Session” chronicles his quest to
stop smoking after his mother dies of lung cancer. It starts off in
traditional essay fashion and then concludes with diary entries ---
dates and all --- for each day he is in Tokyo kicking the habit.
Perhaps because addiction is such a powerful and personal topic,
this is the funniest, the most intimate and the most human of the
essays here.

This is not to say that the others are devoid of humor, intimacy or
humanness, for to lack such things would be completely
un-Sedaris-like. But in “The Smoking Section,” where he
reminisces about previously quitting drugs and alcohol, along with
the present cigarettes, he is back to being Sedaris at his finest.
It is almost as if this small section is the book itself and the
rest of the stories are filler --- good on their own but a bit
tedious side by side in book format. This may be due to the fact
that many were first published elsewhere, thus they lack thematic
continuity.

These essays, however, are still worthy of merit. Those that
originally appeared in the New Yorker are by far the best
of that bunch, and the rest are interesting for anyone already
familiar with Sedaris --- for each story is one more puzzle piece
into the life of the man we feel we know. Taken as a whole, they
bring comedy to everyday life and a narrative to everyday
experiences. He writes of his family, his schooldays, his travels,
his relationships, and all other phases of life both important and
trivial --- and the trivial is made significant by its insight and
irony. Sedaris kept journals before becoming a writer in the
professional sense of the word, and he has truly turned his
personal hobby into a unique literary endeavor that appears
effortless and without fault.

In WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES, like all previous works of his
that I have read, his homosexuality doesn’t come into play
until the middle of the book. In this way he is a writer who just
happens to be gay instead of a “Gay Writer.” As a
minority writer and an advocate for gay rights, I find it
refreshing that his sexuality is treated no differently than that
of anyone else. Sedaris writes of his life with his boyfriend Hugh
and focuses as much on their day-to-day existence as a couple as on
the fact that they are two males in love. He has his coming-out
stories and his in-the-closet stories, but all these are treated as
no more or no less important than everything else he writes about.
The result is literature that can be read by gay males but is not
written specifically for gay males, and this seems to create a
sense of normalcy that homosexuals of both genders often lack in
this hyper homo-aware generation, which is at once friendly and
phobic.

Sedaris --- Greek, middle-class, gay, and with his own set of
neuroses --- is an individual to whom we can all relate --- if not
in specifics, at least in the sense of a self-conscious,
second-guessing, blundering and selfish existence. He tries to be
nothing other than what he is --- a human being. And for this we
can’t help but love him.

Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on January 24, 2011

When You Are Engulfed in Flames
by David Sedaris

  • Publication Date: June 3, 2008
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316143472
  • ISBN-13: 9780316143479