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Book Review

Sedaris treads familiar ground with a more seasoned step

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher Muther
June 10, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, By David Sedaris, Little, Brown, 323 pp., $25.99

Much the way that Celine Dion will never run out of hot air or Middle America will never lose its appetite for funnel cakes, so it seems that David Sedaris will never lose his ability to recall the most minute details of his curious North Carolina childhood.

How is it possible that, nearly 40 years after the dreadfully greasy and slothful Mrs. Peacock was charged with caring for the Sedaris children, the author and NPR commentator can still find vivid details in his childhood diary about this villainess, such as, "The first thing I noticed was her hair, which was the color of margarine and fell into waves to the middle of her back. It was the sort of hair you might find on a mermaid, but completely wrong for a sixty-year-old woman who was not just heavy but fat, and moved as if each step might be her last."

His sixth collection of essays, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames," starts in typical Sedarian style, with a squirm-inducing tale of flesh-dwelling guinea worms and Sedaris's partner's 76-year-old mother lifting heavy furniture while the author waves his cup for a coffee refill. It's not just that Sedaris's crisp prose is humorous. What makes his work a consistent joy to read is his deliciously skewed vision of the world, and his deadpan delivery. But much like his last collection, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," "Flames" is also treading on familiar territory: family dysfunction, boyfriend issues, smoking. We've heard some of these themes before (especially because most of these essays have been previously published), but he still presents an engaging argument as to why we should keep reading.

In the chapter "Solution to Saturday's Puzzle," he describes a flight to Raleigh on which he encounters a difficult passenger - or, more accurately, enrages a high-maintenance flyer. It's a situation we've all been stuck with, but Sedaris, a connoisseur of human nature at its worst, delights in inadvertently tormenting his fellow flyer, where a lesser man would have simply bowed to her wishes.

While the essay "SantaLand Diaries" featured a sharp-tongued Sedaris, "Flames" shows the humorist dealing with difficult people in a slightly more adult manner. Instead of verbally rolling his eyes at their antics, he tries to understand an unfortunate parade of misfits and roustabouts. The cost of this maturity is fewer laugh-out-loud moments than his 2000 collection, "Me Talk Pretty One Day." Sedaris shows a soft side for the likes of the margarine-haired Mrs. Peacock, a weepy man flying in first class, and a particularly cranky New York neighbor named Helen.

"That's Amore," his story about the lovably incorrigible Helen, is the new breed of Sedaris essay. Longer-form (it checks in at more than 20 pages) and more about unexpected friendship than witty quipping, it reveals that the author's heart is capable of pumping more than venom and ice water when the elderly Helen falls ill. For readers who prefer Sedaris as the man who eggs on his siblings and torments himself with bad fashion choices, "That's Amore" will take some getting used to. Even more adjustment is required for "The Smoking Section," an 80-plus-page essay about a trip to Japan taken for the purpose of quitting smoking. It is more descriptive and, yes, more serious than the other essays. It also hints that Sedaris is perhaps ready to produce essays that are not merely collections of memories but examinations of his current life.

But he doesn't appear to be ready to take the step quite yet. He revisits several old favorites in "Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?," a collection of fashion faux pas that you've likely read somewhere before but is just as funny on second viewing. In less talented hands, repeat stories of a patted butt and the infamous Stadium Pal would probably feel as uncomfortable as one of the lady's blouses that Sedaris purchases after sister Amy convinces him that it looks fetching on him. With Sedaris, they're like old, odd-smelling, and weirdly shaped friends who come back for a visit.

Christopher Muther, a member of the Globe staff, can be reached at muther@globe.com.

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