"When You Are Engulfed in Flames"
by David Sedaris; Little, Brown ($25.95)
By Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)
I've long held that the power of good writing trumps all other considerations. Is it by chance that sacred ancient texts, from the Pentateuch to the Gospels, the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad-Gita, are without exception great literature? I submit their survival and the reverence they command owes more to literary greatness than to doctrinal persuasiveness. Likewise, had Sigmund Freud not been a writer of genius, would his wackadoodle theories be anything more than a minor footnote?
In fairness, this notion sometimes breaks down, as in the case of Freud's acolyte-turned-rival, Carl Jung, whose impenetrable writing is akin to an archaeologist wielding a steam shovel—excavating important artifacts and dumping them in a big pile for others to sort out. Jung's theories may be more useful than Freud's, but the wise seeker approaches them through his more readable disciples.
Which brings me to David Sedaris — a non sequitur only if you make the mistake of considering humor a trivial genre. Our most beloved contemporary humorist, Sedaris makes his living not with jokes but autobiographical comic essays.
Last year, in an article titled "This American Lie," New Republic writer Alex Heard investigated some of Sedaris' stories, talking with the essayist's family and friends, and reported that significant portions — marketed as "nonfiction" — were made up.
The result was a minor firestorm, as indignant critics sprang to Sedaris' defense, suggesting Heard was too dense to understand humor and its need for exaggeration. Presumably, these are the same critics who were less forgiving of James Frey, a sourpuss to be sure. Why would my critical brethren — I shared the initial reaction — so readily set aside journalistic virtue?
The answer is that the nefarious Sedaris seduced us by being such a damn good writer. His undiminished power to transmute mundane elements of his daily life into writing that amuses and even enlightens is well displayed in his sixth collection, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" — though the question of what is real and what is fabricated lingers like the odor of a cat box in the next room.
Now middle-age and an established writer who can afford to live in France, Sedaris confronts his own mortality. This ought to be most fully realized in the longest piece, "The Smoking Section," which recounts his ultimately successful efforts to break a 30-year addiction to Kool Milds. Alas, Sedaris after smoking is like Carol Burnett after she got her chin fixed: less funny.
In shorter, more focused essays, Sedaris braces fear of death with a near-perfect blend of humor and pathos. The best of this good lot is "Memento Mori," in which he buys a skeleton as a present for his longtime boyfriend, the artist Hugh Hamrick — only to have it start whispering to him: "You are going to die." This throws Sedaris into a panic of conscience.
"One moment he's an elderly Frenchwoman, the one I didn't give my seat to on the bus. In my book, if you want to be treated like an old person, you have to look like one. That means no face-lift, no blond hair, and definitely no fishnet stockings. I think it's a perfectly valid rule, but it wouldn't have killed me to take her crutches into consideration."
In the end, Sedaris bargains with the skeleton, pledging to make amends to people he's hurt: "The skeleton hesitated a moment. 'You are going to be dead ... someday.'"
Those readers eager for more stories of Sedaris' childhood will be happy to know that while life with Hamrick takes center stage, the author's maladjusted family makes frequent appearances. Some of these pieces, depending less on story than Sedaris' skill at starting in one direction and shifting entirely to another, don't amount to much.
But they are the exception. For the most part, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is a substantial collection from an important writer.
Now if Sedaris would only call his humor what it is: fiction drawn from life. It would be no less appealing.
(c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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