The World according to David Sedaris

For the proverbial "something completely different," I just finished David Sedaris' latest book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, the first Sedaris I've read. Having enjoyed some of his NPR spots, I knew I'd be in for a treat. Sedaris is not a "comedian," but rather a humorist--a quirky observer of nooks and crannies of American (and global) culture that are usually ignored by other "critics." After the first night I had to stop reading this in bed because the uproarious laughter it caused kept waking up the kids. But don't be fooled: these aren't just funny little Seinfeldish "observations" (though you have to love lines like his comment on living in Normandy: Normandy "is like West Virginia, but without the possums"). In fact, one might be surprised at how Sedaris can explore the morbid and macabre in the mode of the comedic: from a season spent in a coroner's autopsy room to the human skeleton hanging in their Paris bedroom. I think Sedaris might be best illuminated if we see him in the orbit of Southern Gothic.

While it's a nice breezy, "beach" sort of read, it also feels like a book that should be read again. I'm not sure I've quite got a handle on Sedaris' world, but I have the sense that it's not the pop nihilism of a Seinfeld, nor just the trivialized world of other comedians. Despite the drugs and homosexuality, I have this hunch that if one reads between the lines, there's something sort of "conservative" about Sedaris: that at the end of the day, what matters are significant relationships, including (and perhaps even primarily) family. There might be a sense in which all of Sedaris' weird, even disturbing, stories are implicit love stories. Maybe the distance between Flannery O'Connor and David Sedaris is not as far as one might think.