I've been experiencing something of a reading flurry. After all that slumping post-Breaking Dawn and on through The Solitary Vice (hissss), I picked up David Sedari's When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and suddenly all was right with the world. He's funny. SO VERY FUNNY. I've heard many readers say that this collection is not as humorous as his others, but I would disagree. For me, it was just as funny, but admittedly with darker undertones.
It's hard to say there's a particular premise to any Sedaris book. He talks about his family, he discusses his life abroad, his relationship with Hugh, his past drug use and alcoholism, his neuroses. It's all in this one, too, so there are no surprises there. However, I will concede that this book is something darker than Sedaris usually writes. Darker than Me Talk Pretty One Day, darker even than Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. It seems ole David is focusing more on his mortality these days and the mortality of those he loves. Even the mortality of the spiders that live on his windowsill in Normandy.
Was it less funny? Hell no. I laughed my rump off, and that's saying something. It's quite a rump. Each story does seem to make more of a point, though--some greater observation--and they're not always happy. In one particularly telling essay, "It's Amore," Sedaris introduces Helen, a crazy neighbor he met while living with Hugh in New York City in 1991. Helen was a firecracker, an outspoken, potty-mouthed, rebel of an old lady. His descriptions of her made me cackle until I hurt all over.
On the first morning of the strike, Hugh left the house at 7:00 a.m. A short while later, Helen called. I normally wouldn't pick up at that hour, but her voice on the machine was slurred and frantic, and so I answered. Since I had known her, Helen had, in her words, 'taken' three strokes. They were, she'd admit, little ones, but still it worried me that she might have had another, and so I got dressed and headed across the hall to her apartment. The door jerked open before I could knock, and she stood in the frame, her lower jaw sunken, the lip invisible. It seemed that she had been at her window, surveying the scene below, and when the super in the building across the street threw a lit cigarette into our trash can, she yelled at him with such force that she blew her lower plate right out of her mouth. 'Itch in da schwubs,' she said. 'Go giddit.'
While many of the essays in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, "It's Amore" included, end on a sad or pensive note, I enjoyed the thoughfulness and introspection in these essays. The funny is still there, as is the ridiculous, but there's also the wisdom and humor of a man who's aged a good deal since his first book. Sedaris is great. Incredibly witty. But wouldn't it be a shame if he just cranked out the same book over and over? He's grown, and I'm glad.
Whether it's an essay about an unlikely acquaintance with a pedophile, an argument on a plane, or an 83-page diary-like account of quitting smoking in Japan (my personal favorite), Sedaris is in top form. I'll be buying my own copy as soon as possible.
Coming up: A review of Mark Kalesniko's graphic novel Mail Order Bride.