When You Are Engulfed in Flames [Buy Now]

By David Sedaris
Little, Brown, 336 pages, $26

Imagine two bumper stickers: “Shit Happens” and next to it, “Miracles Happen.”

In between the merde and the miracles, the continuum of human activity and desire toodles along — largely unexamined, often absurd. Only now and again someone freeze-frames all that activity, waves us over and, pointing at the obvious, says, “Isn’t that just — rich!”

David Sedaris is one of those people.

In his sixth collection of personal essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris continues to play the bemused outsider, the man poking his head through the doorway, looking askance at his own and other lives.

He continues a long tradition of cockeyed essayists, humorous authors like Jerome K. Jerome, Mark Twain, S. J. Perelman, and James Thurber. (The latter two authors, like Sedaris, wrote for The New Yorker and of the 22 essays in this book, 16 of them originally appeared in that magazine.)

It’s hilarious to think that a piece like “What I Learned,” Sedaris’ 2006 baccalaureate address at Princeton University, had to undergo The New Yorker’s standard fact-checking process. Where would you begin? With the fratricide major in which, Sedaris explains, Princeton had a very strong program? Or, in another essay, with the truck driver who offers the hitchhiking young Sedaris more than just a lift? (Think wide stance.)

All this brings up an issue that lately has circled around the author’s success (and reputation) like a vulture. Are his books nonfiction?

In a lengthy 2007 article in The New Republic called “This American Lie,” Alex Heard chased down Sedaris’ family, friends, and acquaintances; fact-checking him with a vengeance.

Heard writes that he felt prompted to do so in answer to the call of “a larger question: whether ‘nonfiction’ means anything when you’re talking about humor writers who admit to flubberizing the truth for comic effect.” His conclusion: Sedaris has exaggerated some things. Which means his work does not merit bookstore shelf space in the nonfiction section.

In the review of Flames by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, she pursued another mission with Sedaris: to denounce his venality.

After allowing that Sedaris is a popular NPR guest and best-selling author with a “huge following,” she goes on to lament his success as a reflection of deep societal toxicity: “a self-dramatizing, post-Seinfeldian talk-show culture in which nothing … is too embarrassing or too private or too trivial to recount.”

“In fact,” she continues, “Mr. Sedaris is like a stand-up comedian, rummaging through his daily experiences … for the comical nugget he can carve and polish (and perhaps exaggerate and embellish) into a shiny anecdote, and then present, with a performer’s flourish, to his audience.”

By these lights, Sedaris, in addition to the previous charge of not being a journalist, is also found guilty of being entertaining.

As a humorist, Sedaris enjoys a signal advantage: He regularly tours with his work and reads it aloud to an audience. From that, he gleans a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Timing and topic alike have run the gauntlet of live audience response. The uncluttered prose of these essays is the result.

While past collections featured more childhood stories about Sedaris’ family, this one more than holds its own with tales of his current life: domestic disasters, his boyfriend Hugh, his travels.

As always, the merely odd and the icky-grotesque mingle here. But Sedaris is looking at his life from a newly crossed threshold: middle-age. And there is a bittersweet quality to his professed anxiety. It’s no less funny, but in these pages, his take on it all may have emerged from somewhere a little deeper.