Still smokin’

Traci Macnamara is a freelance writer and book reviewer.

David Sedaris writes with an almost obsessive attention to detail, and his latest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is a wily collection of essays packed with details that readers will find as frightening as they are delightful.

A humorist and frequent National Public Radio contributor, Sedaris’ previous essay collections (Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) each skyrocketed to the top of best-seller lists, and he’s attracted an enthusiastic following.

“For the past ten years or so,” says Sedaris, “I’ve made it a habit to carry a small notebook in my front pocket. … I pull it out an average of ten times a day, jotting down grocery lists, observations, and little thoughts on how to make money, or torment people.”

In When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris’ habit of scribbling frantically into a notebook pays off in the form of essays whose topics run the gamut from quitting smoking to befriending spiders; from being terrorized by a baby sitter to becoming an appreciator of modern art.

In this collection, the emotional content of Sedaris’ writing can be characterized as laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly sad. Sedaris, who is perhaps best known for his sense of humor, certainly shows off his strong suit as a humorist in these essays, but he also touches on the harsher aspects of human existence. Death, loss and thwarted attempts to connect with others are strong currents running through these essays. And while Sedaris has seemed to lighten heavy subjects with humor in his previous work, this collection seems to suggest a Sedaris who has grown more willing to embrace darkness.

At the end of an essay in which Sedaris tells a story of a burning mouse that runs into a house and subsequently burns it down, for example, Sedaris’ final comment rings true: “[T]hese are certainly dark times,” he says, “both for the burning, and those who would set them alight.”

Some of the more standout essays in this collection are simple tales of people trying to connect with each other, sometimes with success, but more often in varying degrees of failure. In one, Sedaris tells about his friendship with a cantankerous old woman who lives in his apartment building, and in another, he writes about a sex offender who is shunned by his neighbors.

When a grieving man cries uncontrollably in the first-class seat next to Sedaris on an international flight, he can’t help but cry, too. There they were, Sedaris writes, “two grown men in roomy seats, each blubbering in his own elite puddle of delight.”

Such tales of the disconnectedness between contemporary people are nicely balanced with essays about Sedaris’ relationship with his longtime partner, Hugh. The two spend time together in Normandy, France, which Sedaris describes as “basically West Virginia without the possums,” and even though Sedaris plays off their relationship as that of an aging couple, what emerges is the beauty in a coupling that has stood the test of time.

The final—and longest—essay in this collection is perhaps the most disappointing. In it, Sedaris chronicles his successful bid to quit smoking during a three-month stint in Japan. His stories of learning to speak Japanese aren’t as funny as his many previous tales on the topic of language, and the connection between being in Japan and quitting smoking sometimes feels forced.

Sedaris says that the essays in this collection are “realish.” In each of them, so brilliantly full of quirky and minute details, readers will recognize gems of truth.