Among my fondest memories of high school is the day on which my eleventh grade Honors English teacher read to us aloud from David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. In all honesty, I can’t remember why it was that he did so; then again, I also am unable to recall why he imposed classical music on my obviously unreceptive classmates during designated reading time, why he carried on the blatant lie that my first novel wasn’t positively foul for an entire year, or why he so arrogantly proclaimed himself my “mentor” in the college recommendation letters he wrote for me.
Whatever the reason, I was enthralled as much as taken aback at being read stories centering around defecation out loud by an instructor. Surely this wasn’t everyday behavior. Though I’d been read to be a teacher before, it had occurred five years prior in sixth grade. In that instance, it was part one of Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series, the likely start of my borderline obsession with the dystopic and apocalyptic. Haddix had me so invested in her characters then that, upon my teacher wrapping up the first, I immediately hopped online to ascertain whether a sequel did, in fact, exist. Days later, the school received the order my teacher had placed and we began part two post-haste.
Those books, though, could be argued were a teaching tool; Sedaris’ essays, on the other hand, felt to me like something the most uptight of school districts would ban from their libraries. At least that’s how my not-yet-18-year-old self saw things, which is precisely why that one moment left such a lasting impact upon me, why I no sooner saw When You Are Engulfed in Flames on the book store shelf than I’d removed it from said shelf, purchased it, and placed it on a shelf of my own. Removed from the context of eleventh grade Honors English, I worried Sedaris’ essays wouldn’t have the same effect, that his brand of humor would come across as somehow immature to my 23-year-old self.
I needn’t have worried, though, as Sedaris rambling, loose-form essays were as amusing a read as always. Being now an adult, I found myself bothered ever so slightly by how much the essays lacked cohesiveness, seeming to me like a bunch of hilarious, yet unrelated, side-stories thrown together under one vague header. That being said, it feels unfair to levy such a criticism against the man, since one gets the feeling that’s sort of his thing. Besides, all that really matters with a writer the likes of Sedaris is whether or not his essays were worth more than the occasional laugh, which they were, resoundingly so.
Some essays stood out more than others, as is to be expected. I, myself, am partial to “The Understudy,” the story of Mrs. Peacock, Sedaris’ domineering childhood babysitter, and “What I Learned,” the made-up story of his time at Princeton University. The former is practically overflowing with such a bevy of details (“The houses looked like something a child might draw, a row of shaky squares with triangles on top. Add a door, add two windows. Think of putting a tree in the front yard, and then decide against it because branches aren’t worth the trouble.”) that it, of all the essays, is the one which feels the most real, while the latter goes at the college-age uncertainty in clever fashion, Sedaris starting out majoring in patricide (“So what’s wrong with matricide? What, I’m not good enough to murder? You’re too high and mighty to take out your only mother?) before switching to the comparatively lackluster major of comparative literature (“You’re going to study literature and get a job doing what? Literaturizing?”).
The thing about Sedaris, though, is that his essays cover such a wide-range of subjects, from the garden-variety to the patently-absurd, that it’s doubtful any two readers’ favorites will be exactly alike. So I say read When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and to make sure to tell me which you liked the most. Let’s see if, by the end of this, we’ll have named every essay in the thing. I know I wouldn’t be surprised if we did.
Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.