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David Sedaris offers `realish'

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MALCOLM RITTER | May 30, 2008 05:23 PM EST | AP

— "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" (Little, Brown and Co., 323 pages, $25.99), by David Sedaris: For years, David Sedaris has written so many wry and sometimes wacky stories about his life that any longtime fan might certainly ask: C'mon, how much of this really happened?

That question came to the fore last year, when an article in the New Republic said his nonfiction sometimes goes beyond exaggeration to outright fabrication. (The reaction from media commentators was mixed, with some saying humorists are granted latitude with accuracy. Sedaris has said he exaggerates "wildly.")

So before you plunge into this new book's 22 essays _ most republished from elsewhere _ you might check out the author's note.

"The events described in these stories," it says, "are realish."


"That's a good word," Sedaris told the Christian Science Monitor recently. "I guess I've always thought that if 97 percent of the story is true, then that's an acceptable formula."

So be forewarned. And then prepare to laugh. Whether these stories really meet the 97-percent benchmark or not, they're a pleasure to read and funny. Or at least, funnyish.

We read Sedaris' innermost thoughts as he deals with airplane seat mates who are hostile, or crying uncontrollably, or surprisingly foul-mouthed ("It was as if they'd kidnapped the grandparents from a Ralph Lauren ad and forced them into a David Mamet play").

He muses on grisly details of his visit to a medical examiner's office, where he encounters a body transporter who'd been ticketed for using a car pool lane despite insisting that the corpse in back should count as a passenger. We read of a hellish neighbor in Greenwich Village ("Helen would shout so loud that the overhead lights would dim"), the human skeleton Sedaris brought home to his house in France, and his awkward friendship with a man shunned as a child molester.

Some of these essays meander through time and topics like the streets of Venice, Italy, which Sedaris says were seemingly designed by ants. And some work better than others. His 2006 baccalaureate address at Princeton University, relating over-the-top stories about his life on campus, is just a little too silly ("Back then we were on a pass-fail system. ... If you failed, you were burned alive on a pyre that's now the Transgender Studies Building").

And the 80-plus-page piece on smoking and trying to quit while visiting Japan is just too long and flat.

But Sedaris fans will forgive him the occasional disappointment in this, his sixth book. And first-timers will easily see what has made him a best-selling humorist, if not a strict historian.

"People aren't buying my books or showing up (at personal appearances) because they think every word is true," Sedaris told Newsday last year. "They're showing up because they want to laugh."

This book will meet that goal. Honest.