First, the bad news: When You Are Engulfed in Flames is David Sedaris‘ weakest collection to date. Like 2004’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, nearly every essay was previously published, so most interested parties have already consumed the vast majority of this book via The New Yorker and This American Life. The proceedings carry a whiff of beloved-but-stale syndication, akin to late-night reruns of Seinfeld: There’s the one about the child molester, the one about the spiders, the one about the skeleton…

In addition, Sedaris seems awfully close to exhausting his material. These stories strain to reach their natty little endings, and one disjointed ditty, ”Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?” reads like the literary equivalent of selling a kidney to make rent. By now, we’re plenty familiar with Sedaris’ family and long-suffering partner, Hugh, as well as his continuing inability to understand French despite having lived in Paris for a decade. Flames doesn’t bring a lot more to the table, though we do learn Sedaris has no better linguistic luck with Japanese. But hey, the guy ain’t the preeminent humorist of his generation by accident, and his reluctant charm and talent for observing every inch of the human condition remain intact. Flames is perfect for newcomers, and fans can read it as a retrospective — while desperately wondering what comes next. B

Want more? See the Q&A with David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames