I treat myself to one David Sedaris book a year (otherwise, I’d gobble them all up at once like a greedy little goblin). This year, I went for When You Are Engulfed In Flames, his sixth essay collection first published in 2008. As per the blurb: “Subjects include a parasitic worm that once lived in his mother-in-law’s leg, an encounter with a dingo, and the recreational use of an external catheter. Also recounted is the buying of a human skeleton and the author’s attempt to quit smoking.”
Yes, of course, When You Are Engulfed In Flames contains twenty-two essays as hilarious and ridiculous as we’ve come to expect from Sedaris. Other subjects include the time he joined his brother for a drug deal in a North Carolina trailer home, karmic retribution on rude plane passengers, his husband lancing a boil on his tailbone, and befriending a French local only to find out he was a child abuser.
There’s less about his family in this collection than in others I’ve read so far. It’s disappointing, if only because his family seems a veritable goldmine of comic fodder (I have a particularly soft spot for his foul-mouthed brother). But When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t lacking in comic characters, even if they’re not related to Sedaris. I saw another review refer to them as a “new crop of lunatics”, which is spot on.
My personal favourite in the collection – one that gave me many, many literal lols – is That’s Amore, an essay about/profile of Sedaris’s New York neighbour, Helen. She hates everyone, believes herself to be the center of the universe, and sounds like an absolute nightmare to live next to (if incredibly funny to read about). Sedaris attributes to her endless hysterical non sequiturs, including “I shit so hard, I think I sprained my asshole”.
(Heads up: there’s a few uncensored slurs scattered here and there throughout When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Normally, it wouldn’t warrant a mention, but I’ve noticed an uptick on readers looking for content warnings before they pick up a book – so, there you have it.)
The final story in When You Are Engulfed In Flames – The Smoking Section – is remarkably long, much longer than any other essay I’ve read by Sedaris. He recounts, diary-style, his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for six months (yes, that sounds insane, but in Sedaris’s world it makes perfect sense). The story is good – not quite as good as his very best, but still good by any benchmark – even if it does read more like An American In Tokyo, and make me crave a cigarette myself.
My dog, Fyodor Dogstoyevsky, doesn’t care for David Sedaris – because the books make me laugh out loud so hard and so often, his nap time is frequently disturbed. Even though When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t my favourite of his collections I’ve read so far – and probably not one I’d recommend to first-time Sedaris readers – it’s still great. I’m still in awe of the way Sedaris can craft a story out of seemingly nothing at all. I’d dearly love to share a cocktail and a smoke with him (if he hadn’t, as The Smoking Section suggests, sadly quit both alcohol and cigarettes).
Read my reviews of Sedaris’s other books here:
My favourite Amazon reviews of When You Are Engulfed In Flames:
- “I laughed out loud more reading this book than I have in my day to day life since childhood.” – aprillaman
- “He is a breath of fres air for this busy weiry lady suffocated by every day stressers.” – Elizabeth Carver
- “I felt like I was sitting next to a guy on the plane who tried really hard to make me laugh, waving his arms in my face telling crude exaggerated stories. I sat stone faced for 30 minute chance before I told him, “Enough.”” – R Hilux