I literally just finished reading this book, and I have this issue with books where I don’t remember what’s in them very easily. That sort of happened with one of Sedaris’ other books, Naked, which I’m pretty sure I finished last year but have little recollection of. I’ll try that one again in a bit, but for now I’m going to focus on the one I actually finished, which sort of has an annoyingly long title.
As suggested by its skull-adorned cover and graphic title, When You Are Engulfed in Flames reveals the morbid side of David Sedaris, the side we all sort of knew was there but that really just needed time to emerge. It’s timelier than the rest, using 9/11 as a reference point (kind of like every other book written after that date) but it definitely seems more real than the others, especially since I’ve seen him live and experienced readings from the book in person. The diary-style writing, used in the last lengthy part of the book, the “Smoking Section” as he calls it (which, oddly enough, made we want a cigarette), is even more approachable than before and places him in the vignette category, something that writers only seem to earn with age. So I guess that’s appropriate.
But the book, for the most part, is about death, or things that cause death pretty directly, like smoking. From other people’s descriptions I got the sense that the book would be more about his relationship with Hugh, but it really wasn’t. I know this is tangential, but here is a really cute picture of the two of them. I think it ran in the NYT.
Sedaris seems to describe their relationship as a series of comfortable annoyances, but all in all it does sound like they’re actually quite happy, with Hugh being the practical one and David being the butt (no pun intended) of all the jokes. I can say with certainty that given the weirdly graphic nature of some of the stories (one is about dead bodies) it’s both dangerous and pleasurable to read in a public place. Mine of choice was the BART, and I’m sure (as Sedaris describes accurately in his book) people definitely looked over my shoulder, only to be surprised at slightly appalled at the vocabulary on the page. But they should know better.
Sedaris’ books are really made better when you see him read them aloud. After that, you can imagine him saying every sentence in his light tenor, and it makes you laugh harder. Even in public.