When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris

Rib-tickling tales of autopsies, airline stewardesses and catheters

Reviewed,Rebecca Loncraine
Monday 30 June 2008 00:00 BST

Reading this new collection of memoir-essay-stories by the master US humourist David Sedaris is like being tickled on the ribs by someone you love: you laugh hysterically, feel a mixture of excitement and irritation, and instinctively wriggle away as exhaustion sets in. Sedaris writes about his everyday life, the co-stars being his family, partner Hugh, friends and neighbours. Every one of these 22 essays has something unique and extraordinary to offer: what we have come to expect from a writer a previous reviewer said "can make Woody Allen appear ham-tongued, Oscar Wilde a drag".

In this collection, the black comedy that has always been a vital part of his writing comes fully to the fore. These are dark, visceral essays that look unflinchingly at the vulnerable ageing body and at death. It's amazing that Sedaris manages to make witnessing an autopsy so funny.

Highlights are an account of living next to a foul-mouthed elderly woman in New York who, when Sedaris meets her, tells him, "mess with me, and I'll stick my foot so far up your ass I'll lose my shoe". In another, Sedaris argues with a woman he is sitting next to on a plane and then sneezes while she is asleep, sending a cough sweet shooting into her lap. He writes best about acute embarrassment and seems to enjoy humiliating himself. He describes the Stadium Pal, an external catheter that enables sports spectators and truck drivers to urinate into a tube and then collect the urine in a bag. He tries it, but admits that peeing while checking into a hotel or discussing his drinks order with a flight attendant isn't easy.

Sedaris has now entered middle age, which perhaps partially explains why in these essays he weaves the past and the present more loosely: everything is getting a bit mixed up. His neighbour in Paris reminds him of an incident in his childhood, which in turn reminds him of an old New York friend. Many stories have a loose, associative structure more akin to the diary or daydream than the perfectly crafted jewels of his other collections. Once you've stopped laughing at his accounts of making coffee from the stale water in a vase after his water is cut off, or his failed attempt to tame a house spider, you're left with a much more colourful picture of the little tragedies at work in the everyday.

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