Book Review: Sedaris' humor hums in latest collection of essays
David Sedaris is the last person you'd want to sit next to on a plane, and he'd tell you so himself. In one of the funniest moments of his latest book, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames"(2008), the comic essayist struggles to enjoy flying in the "Business Elite" section of the plane, while sitting next to a man on his way to a funeral.
In an attempt at sensitivity, he tries not to enjoy the luxuries of Business Elite too visibly, so Sedaris puts on his headphones and starts to watch a very mediocre comedy on the miniature built-in screen in front of his seat.
Not surprisingly, his strange sense of humor gets the better of him. Because he knows it would be so socially unacceptable to laugh, he begins laughing -- not just laughing at one or two jokes, he explains, but howling in hysteria with tears of joy running down his face. All the while, his seatmate cries in mourning over the loss of a loved one.
The rest of the book revolves around more of the same: sad, commonplace moments turned hilariously depraved. David Sedaris matches his writing talent with a love for finding humor in the miserable.
This same brand of dark humor that has mad his past essays in The New Yorker and in books like "Me Talk Pretty One Day" (2000), "Naked" (1997) and "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" (2004) carries Sedaris' new collection of essays, which centers around the author's mid-life crisis and the major decision that followed.
The final essay of the book, "The Smoking Section," is a three-part, 83-page saga through Sedaris' struggle to quit smoking once he realizes that cigarettes will kill him if he doesn't stop. To change his habits, he moves to Japan with his boyfriend and dedicates all of his time to learning Japanese.
After he returns to the United States smoke-free, all he wants is to be lauded for his accomplishment: "The truth, of course, is that I'd wanted some praise. I'd denied myself. I'd done something hard, and now I wanted everyone to congratulate me. It was the same in 2000 when I lost 20 pounds. 'Notice anything different?' I'd say this to people who had never seen me before."
This turning point is as anti-climactic as the others in the book; the clear victory is never the important one. Other essays generally deal with smaller, less significant struggles in Sedaris' life. Yet the standard trajectory for these other struggles is not towards victory but rather failure and mediocrity.
He wastes his college education by choosing to become a writer, gets a huge boil on his tailbone, treats the spiders in his French cottage like pets and befriends a convicted child molester who lives down the street.
In all of these situations, though bizarre and entertaining in themselves, the drama and the humor come from Sedaris' twisted world view and his ability to draw readers into his mind.
In the first essay of the book, for example, Sedaris struggles to understand germophobia. After hearing a story about how his boyfriend had a worm live in his leg when he was eight years old, he realizes, "The only preventative thing I do is wash clothes after buying them in a thrift shop -- this after catching crabs from a pair of used pants."
The essay is one of the boldest attempts Sedaris makes to understand the quirks in the rest of us; for the most part, he just points out his own hilarious oddities and weaknesses. The resulting jokes don't come in a constant onslaught but slowly build and end with subtle punch lines that fill the reader with a steady funny feeling instead of occasional flashes of laughter.
This device succeeds in "This Old House" in which Sedaris reflects on the time he spent in a decrepit house filled with extreme eccentrics, like the landlady who "dabbled" in antiques and ended up wearing clothing to match, or the schizophrenic road-construction worker.
The essay ends with Sedaris looking back on all of the antiques that gave the house its character: "What I could never fathom, and still can't, really, is that at one point all those things were new. The wheezing Victrola, the hulking davenport ... Given enough time, I guess anything can look good. All it has to do is survive."
"Flames" sometimes drags with heavy moments like this, and the collection lacks both cohesion and forward movement, but the book is nevertheless a page-turner thanks to Sedaris' knack for manipulating the reader's curiosity by controlling access to information.
Most of his stories take place in a reality that we would not recognize as our own, and Sedaris never gives away just what it is that sets his strange world apart. But once we adopt Sedaris' infectious way of looking at things, we start to see the humor in everything.