WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES by David Sedaris (Little, Brown), 336 pages, $28.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Readers can easily relate to David Sedaris’s experiences. Scary babysitters, trips to the zoo, strange neighbours, language barriers or air travel all find a place in his “realish” tales.
The humour is dark. He writes about lonely French child molesters, holding a dead smoker’s lung while trying to kick the habit, milking pus-filled boils, and guilt over having contributed to a crusty neighbour’s death.
Much of the dreamlike collection of recollections in When You Are Engulfed In Flames – 22 essays published mostly in the New Yorker – deals with mortality. Sedaris feels the pressure to stop smoking and travels to Tokyo to do it. He talks about the absurdity of feeling like two months without “cancer sticks” qualify him for a more dignified death, perhaps from renal cell carcinoma.
In Adult Figures Charging Toward A Concrete Toadstool, he takes on his adolescent interest in art. His parents “invest” in gauche local artists with the idea that their work will appreciate after the artists’ deaths.
The author concludes that, for all the “art” in his parents’ house, the real prize is a concrete toadstool and its little troll. He and his siblings had audiences with the stoic lawn ornament, now a symbol of the simplicity of what used to be.
In This Old House, Sedaris probes his love of vintage objects and the counterintuitive notion that age improves memories. He writes that, given enough time, anything can look good.
All it has to do is survive.
It looks like Sedaris wants more time. If you find the stories weak at first compared to what you remember from Me Talk Pretty One Day, you should let these linger for a bit.
Sedaris signs books at Ben McNally Books on Friday (July 11). See Readings.