August 4, 2009

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

At the pool I currently go to, one of the regulars is a woman with Down syndrome .... Odd is the great satisfaction I take whenever I beat her from one end to the other.

"I won three out of four," I told Hugh the first time she and I swam together. "I mean I really creamed her."

"Let me get this straight," he said. "She's obese. She's as old as you are. And she has Down syndrome?"

"Yes, and I beat her. Isn't that great!"

This is the kind of crazy stuff one can find in this collection of essays by David Sedaris. What really gets me is that he only won 3 out of 4 races! As I was reading this book, a clear departure from my typical fare, I found myself making little notations on my bookmark of page numbers and anecdotes that were my favorite. Sedaris doesn't write about anything exceedingly extraordinary like climbing Mount Everest or learning how to play the piano with his toes, but he does turn the normal events of his life into quirkly, sometimes hilarious reading. One of the snippets that had me chuckling out loud in the middle of a silent study hall was his observations on the Stadium Pal, an accessory he had purchased:

It was my search for something discreet, masculine, and practical that led me to the Stadium Pal, an external catheter currently being marketed to sports fans, truck drivers, and anyone else who's tired of searching for a bathroom....

The subsequent analysis of the uses of the Stadium Pal at a long public reading, on an overbooked coast-to-coast flight, or when you just didn't feel like looking for a bathroom, had me in stitches. Combine this delightfulness with the anecdote about telling his parents about his double major in patricide and matricide at Princeton and his adventures in quitting smoking, and the dry humor of this piece of work is just that - a piece of work.

Some of it is vulgar. VERY vulgar. Complete with everything from F-bombs to the N-word, the language of this book can leave the sensitive reader reeling. It would be easy to hold this against Sedaris if the bulk of the book wasn't so freaking hilarious. I do wish he would have included more pieces on his family since the part about their babysitter, Mrs. Peacock, demanding that he and his sisters scratch her hairy, sweaty back with a plastic monkey hand on a stick was just too good. I definitely would have preferred more focus on his quick-witted sisters rather than on his somewhat mundane boyfriend, Hugh. He got a little boring after a while.

The verdict on this one? Read with caution. It's off key, tasteless at times, and very weird. It's also very, very some. I will end by sharing what was probably my favorite moment from the whole book. While discussing how modern society has drastically changed its view on smoking from previous generations, Sedaris writes this excerpt. It's so horrible I was almost peeing my pants I was laughing so hard:

It seems crazy to cut smoking mothers out of textbooks, but within a few years they won't be allowed in movies either. A woman can throw her newborn child from the roof of a high-rise building. She can then retrieve the body and stomp on it while shooting into the windows of a day care center, but to celebrate these murders by lighting a cigarette is to send a harmful message. There are, after all, young people watching, and we wouldn't want them to get the wrong idea.


  1. I loved this book. I find David Sedaris so funny! You might want to try Me Talk Pretty One Day...I liked it even better than When You Are Engulfed in Flames. There's one story where he takes the Mensa qualifying test that had me crying it was so funny!

    He talks about his family more in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I didn't find that book nearly as funny, though it was still good. It was interesting because at least in one story, he talked about how it's rough for his family that difficult or embarrassing stories about them become fodder for his writing. There's one he writes that ends with his sister begging him not to write about what happened, yet he's writing it and begging her forgiveness. That had me nearly in tears, too, though that time not out of humor.

    (My books are all packed away in preparation of an upcoming move...wish I could pull these out to reread...and verify I'm remembering correctly :)

  2. I had this book from the library but didn't get it read before I had to return it. Now I'm going to have to go back for it!

  3. I might have to give Me Talk Pretty One Day a try. This was the first Sedaris I had read and it was definitely a departure from the norm for me, but I did enjoy it.


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