Friday, July 18, 2008

David Sedaris: “When you are Engulfed in Flames”

I have been a fan of David Sedaris ever since I by chance heard him read his essay “I Like Guys” from his book “Naked” on the radio, gosh what would that be?? Ten years ago? At least that. “Naked”, from 1997, is a collection of essays chronicling his life, from his unusual upbringing in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, through his booze-and-drug-infested college years, and on to his aimless wandering as a young adult. Full of sardonic wit and dark humor, “Naked” included the classic “Dinah the Christmas Whore” a hilarious story of Sedaris' job at a cafeteria during his Christmas break as a teenager and his and sister Lisa’s mission to extract her coworker (a recently paroled former prostitute) from a domestic disturbance. I mean, doesn’t every middle class family have a prostitute in for Christmas Eve?

After Naked came “Me Talk Pretty One Day” (2000) and then “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” in 2004; both, are in my mind, classics of American humor.

Now after 4 years and several name changes comes his new book of essays “When you are Engulfed in Flames”. As in his previous oeuvre there are some hilarious, laugh out loud moments, such as “Solution to Saturday's Puzzle” when his throat lozenge falls on to a bitchy airplane seatmate and “That's Amore” a bittersweet study of his rude, yet somehow lovable neighbor Helen, whom Sedaris makes you loathe and pity at the same time. However funny at times, I detected a bit of ennui in “Engulfed”, a bit of weariness and forced hilarity, instead of the easily flowing sarcasm and rapier wit of the previous books. Maybe because that is his life now, jetting comfortably first-class from Paris to London, the US, summers in the house in Normandy, spending $20,000 to jet off to Tokyo in an effort to quit smoking. The Sedaris of his youth, his family, his drug and booze filled wanderings were so much more interesting. Instead of funny and endearing, I find him annoying.

The bulk of the book is an expanded memoir of his attempt (I assume successful) to quit smoking. “The Smoking Section” starts out brisk and humorous but soon bogs down in a vain attempt to find life in Japan amusing. His struggle to learn Japanese at a language school is more pathetic and annoying than funny.

That words pathetic and annoying keep returning as I review my just finished reading of this book. Pathetic, forced, annoying. A now rich person trying to act insane while jetting the globe at will. I have read and re-read “Naked”, “Me Talk Pretty” and “Corduroy” several times. Somehow, I just do not see that I will return to “Engulfed” time after time.

I was lucky that I got to meet him at a book signing after “Naked” was published and told him I fell in love with his work upon hearing that on the radio. “I remember that.. I had to take a huge dump the whole time I was reading that…painful”. (Thank you sir… moving away quickly…) Thus, one of my prized possessions is a personalized and signed copy of “Naked”:

“To Don with Love, David Sedaris”.

The “W” on his written "with" is in the shape of a pair of butt cheeks, complete with a few hairs and pimples.

I, for one, wish he’d never grown up. And I still love you David, but we have to realize something, friend... you are getting old now, like me… and life is less interesting… like mine.

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