"When You Are Engulfed in Flames," by David Sedaris. Little, Brown. 323 pages. $25.99.
Bottom line: Hilarious still, the comic essayist also does rueful well.
David Sedaris is famous now, but he's spent so much time remembering the years when he was a slacker and a pothead that he's come to seem like the ordinary kid who one day discovers he has superpowers. Upon few are such gifts bestowed. Will he apply them to the good of humankind? Or, in Sedaris' case, of literature?
The author of five previous essay collections and a busy performer whose sold-out readings have lifted him to rock-star status is obviously no longer a slacker (if he ever really was). As he informs us in his sixth book, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames," the pot is a thing of the past, too. He doesn't even smoke cigarettes now. The question of how he'll use his gifts continues, though. One side of him just wants to be funny. He can still make me laugh harder than anyone I've ever read. Though his sentences have a writerly (as opposed to a talkerly) cast, they're even funnier when he reads them aloud in his fey deadpan. How many essayists get invited to perform their work on "David Letterman"? When Sedaris did, he judiciously chose his discussion (it's in the new volume) of 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."
Another side of him is more ambitious —- more introspective, more "serious." At 51, his young man's meanness has cooled. These days he regards people more in the manner of an anthropologist than of a judge. Two of the best pieces in the book are lightly regretful memoirs of elderly (now deceased) neighbors he feels he might have been a little nicer to, even if one was a foulmouthed thundercloud and the other a child molester.
Sedaris has always been open about being gay, and he gets a lot of mileage out of his now long-term relationship with his partner, Hugh. Occasionally the Hugh essays verge on shtick; there's something very '50s —- very marital sitcom —- about his feigned exasperation with a man he so clearly adores. But others go deeper. One lovely piece of writing, "Old Faithful," addresses the unglamorousness of monogamy. Another, titled "All the Beauty You Will Ever Need," is about the freedom gay couples have from straight role-playing (as in "Which one's the man?"). A piercing memoir of coming out takes off from his startling encounter with a liberated gay 15-year-old. "I felt," he writes, "like someone in a 10-pound leg brace meeting a beneficiary of the new polio vaccine."
Last March, in what must have been 2007's weirdest piece of investigative journalism, the writer Alex Heard published a story in the New Republic titled "This American Lie," which revealed that a number of the events in Sedaris's comic essays are exaggerations if not outright fabrications. (Heard also clucked at the way Sedaris mocks his parents and his siblings —- "David plays hardball," he charged —- though they haven't seemed to mind.)
A month later Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, wondered why Heard's article had generated so little outrage.
My guess is that was probably because most of Sedaris' readers have the wit to grasp the difference between reportage and comedy writing.
Heard's zealous expenditure of shoe leather did have one result, though.
Sedaris has changed the note on his copyright page from "The events described in these stories are real" to "The events described in these stories are realish."
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