David Sedaris' sixth collection of essays, "When You are Engulfed in Flames," is funny while serious and deep while light-handed, and Sedaris' reputation is once again justified as a writer comparable to Mark Twain or James Thurber. You have to go back a ways to find someone to compare David Sedaris with; his talent is so huge it just doesn't come around that often.
Or you can compare the writer, who grew up in Raleigh, to himself and perhaps wonder if his greatest vulnerability is running out of material. I wonder for about a minute until I recall that this is a man who creates a brilliant piece of writing with nothing more than a toilet that won't flush. Still, since Sedaris' last collection, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" (2004), we've entered into a hyper fact-checking, post-James-Frey world that might be at least a little constricting on Sedaris' admitted tendency to exaggerate his nonfiction. Personally, in the debate over how true "true" needs to be, my own criteria for any standard is, "can David Sedaris get by with what he does? If not, I'm against it." (Note: In the author's note for "Engulfed," Sedaris says, of the "events described in these stories," they are "realish." In previous books, they were "real.")
Sedaris, at 51, hasn't run out of material, though dedicated readers may experience déjà vu with some of the characters in "Engulfed." There is the politically incorrect, foul-mouthed, older woman neighbor back in New York ("That's Amore") who might remind one of the woman he stripped paint for back in "Something for Everyone" or the lunatic in the nursing home in "Get Your Ya-Ya's Out." (Both from "Naked.") Readers will be glad to go on that ride again even as the "realishness" of these characters, as filtered through Sedaris' perspective, begins to seem dubious.
Other times, the terrain is familiar but distractingly less successful than earlier treatments, as in the final essay of the book, "The Smoking Section," where Sedaris goes to Japan and grapples with the language a la "Me Talk Pretty One Day." "The Smoking Section" is a good essay with much to offer, but it pales when compared to his hapless efforts to learn French in "Me Talk Pretty One Day."
There is a format to many of Sedaris' essays. The pattern is often something like snicker snicker snicker snicker oh-my-gosh-that's-the-funniest-thing-I-ever-read snicker snicker snicker, poignant ending. Sedaris' endings are generally so satisfying, and that's really important -- his ability to join poignancy with humor so thoroughly that there seems to be no difference between the two makes his essays feel complete and true (no matter how exaggerated), as does the coming full circle on a well-controlled theme. Sedaris' endings tend to leave you shaking your head in awe.
In "Engulfed," there are quips, there are references to previous lines, there is seriousness, all traits that sound, but often don't feel, like the great Sedaris ending. An exception is "The Understudy," which is set in Sedaris' childhood among his siblings, with cameos by Sedaris' unforgettable mother. It's one of the strongest essays in the book.
Readers will also find that Sedaris' wildly successful writing career and all its trappings are infiltrating his writing. There are casual references to a second French apartment, an expensive art collection, his brother not having paid Sedaris back a $25,000 loan. This altered life is at times a good deal less compelling than Sedaris as a child or Sedaris as a young man trying to make ends meet while washing dishes, or freelancing as a paint stripper, or working as a Christmas elf. The run-in with humanity's foibles from the first-class seat of an airplane just doesn't have the same cut as the daily ignominy of the person needing the grunt job.
One of the things Sedaris does that so tickles is he manages to portray himself as bizarre yet understandable. Somehow gazillions of readers can identify with this homosexual, vaguely or blatantly obsessive-compulsive person with a weird, high voice who doesn't drive or own a computer. But in "Engulfed," when we see him on a plane refusing to trade places with a woman's husband so the two can sit together, he may say he has his reasons, but it rings petty. This is the only time Sedaris has lost me in that most basic way a successful essay captures the empathy of his reader: If the essayist is a jerk, the essayist knows, better than anyone, that he's a jerk. I did not dislike this woman Sedaris was sitting next to the way I disliked the social villains from previous books -- say, Bonnie, the overall-wearing woman from North Carolina who stayed with him in New York, or the horrid American tourists talking about Sedaris on a train, speaking loudly in English and assuming he doesn't understand ("City of Angels and Picka Pocketoni" from "Me Talk Pretty").
Geniuses have impossibly high standards to meet: their own. Sedaris might be slightly off his game with this new collection, but should you read it? Of course. Overall, it's great. It's David Sedaris.