By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When You Are Engulfed in Flames
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown, 336 pages, $25.99
Last year, a Vanity Fair article alleged that Augusten Burroughs had fabricated major chunks of his bestselling memoir, Running With Scissors. There was even a lawsuit based on this claim, which Burroughs settled in August, all the while defending his work as "entirely accurate." And when his new real-life musings, A Wolf at the Table, were published earlier this year, many critics scratched their heads and asked whether anyone could truthfully (a) remember this many vivid, minute details about their childhood and (b) have a family that could possibly be this otherworldly, violent and bizarre. (At which point the reader chuckles, "You haven't met my Aunt Agnes ...")
Burroughs' peer in this field — the flourishing category of kinda-gay, family-centric, literary stand-up comedy memoir — is David Sedaris, who prefers to call himself a "humorist." Sedaris recently came to the defense of James Frey, whose own exaggerations (yeah, lies) in a memoir brought shame even to Oprah. Sedaris himself has confessed to exaggeration in the name of humor.
Though not enough of it this time out.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of playing fast and loose with the truth, you may emerge from Sedaris' latest collection of essays wishing he'd played it a little faster and looser — 'cause it ain't very funny.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, a roundup of 22 essays, all but two of which have been previously published in The New Yorker and other magazines, never quite gets off the couch. Like Hunter S. Thompson attempting to practice gonzo journalism by watching CNN and sending faxes in his 1995 downturn Better Than Sex, Sedaris here seems to pen most of the ruminations from the cozy comfort of his new home in rural France — about the cozy comfort of his new home in rural France. He seems perfectly content, strolling the lanes in Normandy and watching his partner Hugh putter around the house. Who wouldn't be? But contentment has rarely bred art of any universal interest, and Sedaris here is sometimes so passive he ignores opportunities for engaging narrative.
In the middle of "The Smoking Section" — the only bulk of new material published here, about the author's attempt to kick the habit — he mentions one way he plans to deal with his struggle: "I hated leaving a hole in the smoking world, and so I recruited someone to take my place." Hopes are raised, here comes a hilarious tale of corrupting a minor! Nope. He blows right by it, preferring to avoid actions with consequences and simply continue whining. One sentence later — "After crossing 'replacement' off my list ..." — he goes back to his very long-winded (is that irony?) gripe session. Most of us never knew someone who was an elf at Macy's, but we've all known someone who quit smoking and, well, you know just how much fun those rants are to listen to, much less read.
There are pleasant moments in the dull lull, like dozing on a train and occasionally snapping awake. "Keeping Up" is one of Sedaris' subtle stabs at the softer parts of human nature. A few light touches keep this admission of social helplessness (if not agoraphobia) from sinking completely into a weak whimper for help. Instead, it stays afloat as a sweet confession of the purely practical reasons he can't live without Hugh, a cover for the emotional ones.
The only eye-opening achievement here is an absurdist trifle called "What I Learned." It's remarkable mainly because it reads like nothing else here, and uses actual fiction to enliven a skewering of academic existence. "If you passed, you got to live, and if you failed you were burned alive on a pyre that's now the Transgender Studies Building," recalls a refreshing un-Dave narrator of his Princeton years back in ancient times, when he majored in "patricide." Now there's some exaggeration worth reading.
But, alas, it's a jewel in the otherwise boring rough. Perhaps Sedaris is the more truthful and honest of the humorous memoirists. Real life, after all, isn't always funny, narratively structured or even interesting. The book version, though — exaggeration or no — should be, right?
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.