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Mortality's Lighter Side: Sedaris' 'Engulfed'

There are books, and then there are "Books We Like." Each week in Books We Like, our critics review their top picks for new fiction and nonfiction.

David Sedaris has made a career out of humiliation. Thanks to his ability to blush and take it, we know what it's like to be an elf in Macy's Santaland, carry a lisp through childhood and grow up gay in Raleigh, N.C. But some squeamishness is harder to overcome. It's much easier to laugh at a nudist colony than at death itself — which is essentially what Sedaris is doing in his latest collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

While writing this book (the bulk of which was previously published in story form in The New Yorker, among other places) Sedaris turned 50, and it shows. The neurotic, death-fearing author visits a morgue, has a catheter inserted just to see what it's like and buys a skeleton as a gift. "It's funny how certain objects convey a message," Sedaris writes, itemizing what his washer, stove and bathroom scale represent to him. "The skeleton has a much more limited vocabulary and says only one thing: 'You are going to die.'"

Eventually, Sedaris does what every death-o-phobe ought to do: He quits smoking. It's a final goodbye in a book full of farewells, always funny, occasionally bittersweet. The story "That's Amore" conjures a cranky, elderly New Yorker Sedaris befriends in the last years of her life. The meaner she gets, the more he adores her. One day she uses a dirty word for her genitals. "What?" she asks a shocked Sedaris. "You think I ain't got one?"

It's possible that Sedaris recognized a little bit of himself in her. "Road Trips" describes how he met a 15-year-old who is gay and out in Raleigh. The middle-aged humorist writes: "I felt like someone in a ten-pound brace meeting a beneficiary of the new polio vaccine." Sedaris survived his mortifying childhood, of course — using his diary and sense of humor as crutches. They will probably carry him right to the end, too.

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John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Grantamagazine. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism has appeared in publications around the world, including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Book Review. His latest book is The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.