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Published: Saturday, 8/2/2008

The hurmorist may be showing his age in new stories

BY GABE NELSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

If humorist David Sedaris has a mantra, it s probably Mel Brooks definition of comedy: Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.

Sedaris has spent more than 15 years writing about the comically sewage-drenched people around him, including his implausibly eccentric family and some of the world s most perplexing or perverted strangers. With six collections of stories and dozens of segments on National Public Radio already under his belt, Sedaris has learned to describe them in detail so hilarious readers can almost smell the stench.

Like its predecessors, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris seventh collection of stories, isn t for the easily shocked or weak of heart. Since making his first appearance on National Public Radio in 1992 and publishing his first book, Barrel Fever, in 1994, Sedaris has gained a reputation as a sharp social critic willing to train his pen on virtually any topic. He has always been drawn to the strange and repulsive, which in this book means fake buttocks, animal pornography, and festering boils.

But Sedaris is 51 now, and if the Van Gogh painting of a skull smoking a cigarette that graces the book s cover is any indication, Sedaris knows he s getting older.

Like Van Gogh, Sedaris gamely attempts to find humor in the grotesque and morbid. In The Monster Mash, Sedaris spends a week on assignment over Halloween at a medical examiner s office and has to joke about death as a coping mechanism. For instance, there was the time one of the pathologists needed to simmer the flesh off a human head to search for contusions.

It s gruesome. But as he so often does, Sedaris manages to make it funny:

Looking back, I perhaps should have chosen my words more carefully. Fire up the kettle, I told him. Ol -fashioned skull boil at 5 p.m.

It s one thing when it s someone else s skull on the line, but many of Sedaris attempts to confront his own mortality fall somewhere between banal and maudlin.

The most obvious example is Memento Mori, in which Sedaris buys his boyfriend a skeleton as a Christmas present. The story starts cleverly as Sedaris hunts for a skeleton at a flea market after all, where does one shop for a set of human bones?

I have never in my life seen a skeleton advertised on a bulletin board, he writes. Used bicycles, yes, but no human bones, or even cartilage, for that matter.

Then the story takes a sentimental tack when Sedaris starts to imagine the skeleton relentlessly taunting him about his mortality. Like countless protagonists before him, he begs death to stop shadowing his every move, and the story creaks to a weary stop:

The skeleton hesitated a moment. You are going to be dead ... some day, he told me. And then I put away the vacuum cleaner, thinking, Well, that s a start.

The 22 stories and essays, all but two of them previously published in magazines or broadcast on NPR s This American Life, show Sedaris is still one of the sharpest satirists out there despite some missteps. They often address the subjects readers now expect from Sedaris, like his bizarre childhood and encounters with truly strange strangers.

There s a story ( The Understudy ) about Mrs. Peacock, the Sedaris children s babysitter from hell, who demands that they scratch her back for hours with an implement shaped like a monkey s paw. Sedaris gets some of his best laughs in Of Mice and Men, in which he encounters a blowhard New York City chauffeur who claims he saw the world and then some as an importer-exporter.

He said that he had been (to China) more times than he could count, and when I asked what he had seen, he rolled forward a few inches. Lots of people eating rice, mainly from bowls.

Gosh, I said. So it s true!

Sedaris still seems perfectly at home picking life apart in prose, but he s getting older, and his life seems to lack the comic material it once had. He s in a steady relationship with Hugh Hamrick, who can do no wrong, if these stories are to be believed.

Sedaris has the money to jet-set around the world on a whim when he wants to quit smoking, he flies to Japan for several months.

That story, called The Smoking Section, is an 80-page diary and the book s main piece of previously unpublished material. It s funniest, though, when Sedaris discusses how he started smoking and the cavalier attitude he used to have about cigarettes. Worrying about emphysema and carcinomas isn t that funny.

There s charm in the way Sedaris finds humor in the details most people ignore, and it seems unfair and voyeuristic to wish that his life were more dysfunctional for the sake of his writing, but it s hard to shake the feeling he s lost the edge that took him from unknown author to one of America s leading humorists.

Sedaris has been mining his motley past for 15 years now, and though his comic timing and keen insight remain intact, stories about the inexorable march of time don t scream comedy.

Maybe it s a midlife crisis that Sedaris will eventually overcome. There s plenty of humor to be found in getting old, after all.

To borrow Brooks s metaphor, Sedaris is falling day by day into an open sewer. That s funny, isn t it?

Contact Gabe Nelson at:gnelson@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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