Not that funny. Not that poignant. Unabashedly self-indulgent. I am a big fan of David Sedaris and his absurd sense of humor. His latest collection of essays in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, however, was a disappointment. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of disbelief induced head-shaking moments, but the vast majority of the book is spent detailing Sedaris’s mildly interesting idiosyncracies. Whereas past essays focused on his bizarre family and peculiar upbringing, this book relays unrelatable stories of a rich, famous, first-class flying author who lives an insular life in some of the world’s most desirable cities. Hardly a page passes without Sedaris mentioning his drug-riddled past. It becomes quite tiresome; the constant referencing of the past reveals an insecurity in the present. Maybe naming the spiders who live outside his Normandy home and following their exploits is as rewarding as it sounds.
The longest section of the book is devoted to Sedaris’s battle to quit smoking. He is overtly negative about the world’s cities going smokefree. His desire to quit was not motivated by his smoking mother’s death at the hands of lung cancer or anything health related: his need to smoke led him to one too many terrible hotel. In order to go back to his plush life of Heavenly beds at Four Seasons Hotels he needs to quit. Maybe if I believed him I would enjoy this transparency that reveals a blatantly unapologetic megalomaniac, but I don’t. Surely Sedaris recognizes that his desire to smoke is not more important than the desire of others to not be at greater risk of disease. It is like Sedaris has lost his identity: he identifies with drug abusers, alcoholics and smokers even though he has quit the vices that tie him to them. Let go, man.
All that said, the humor Sedaris has employed in building his fandom shines through and I am glad I read the book. The stream-of-consciousness style is easy to read and easy to pick up and put down at your leisure. There are many memorable characters, from the surly, elderly neighbor lady in New York who curses like a sailor to the convicted pedophile neighbor in Normandy who pursues Sedaris’s friendship after being ostracized by the community. As with any Sedaris story there is never a dull moment.