Oakland, Calif. Pick up David Sedaris' new book and you're staring at death. If the van Gogh painting of a skeleton gracing the cover doesn't say it clearly enough, the fact that the skull is smoking a cigarette should.
The image, from a postcard Sedaris picked up in a museum store, hints at the themes that set "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" - his sixth collection of essays - apart from previous Sedaris books. This is an older, more thoughtful writer who, after years of proffering stinging barbs, cigarette perpetually in hand, realizes he's not immortal.
So he quits smoking. Eases up on the sarcasm. Considers the hard knocks dealt to some of the unfortunate misfits who cross his path - after ripping them to shreds. And he just plain obsesses about death.
"To be young and bratty, that's OK. It's funny," the 51-year-old author says. "To be old and bratty. ..." Well, that's simply wrong.
Devotees who got hooked on Sedaris' biting humor in "SantaLand Diaries" - the 1992 essay about his stint working as an elf during Christmas at a Macy's department store that launched him into national prominence - will feel a change in tone.
He's still the funniest guy around, hilarious enough to make you want to call your friends, book in hand, and read pieces out loud trying to mimic his deadpan delivery. He hasn't lost the gift of cracking open mundane frustrations, such as sitting next to an annoying person during a long plane ride, to reveal the gleaming kernel of absurdity.
But this more mature Sedaris will surprise readers by being kinder. More considerate. By pausing, in the midst of tearing apart some bystander, to reflect on his or her redeeming qualities.
In "The Understudy," for example, he takes on one of those characters that seem to exist solely so they can enter one of his stories: Mrs. Peacock, a baby sitter hired to watch over the six Sedaris children while their parents vacationed.
Everything about her seemed to invite a slow roasting over the fire of Sedaris' wit - her hair, the color of margarine ("the sort of hair you'd find on a mermaid, completely wrong for a 60-year-old woman who was not just heavy but fat," he explains), her suitcase tied with string, her tortured English.
And he does launch into her, delighting in descriptions of how she forced the poor children to take turns scratching her greasy back with a plastic implement shaped like a gnarled monkey paw. But then, on a visit to the ogre's home, the spell is broken. Her efforts to decorate with plastic dolls, the miniature refrigerator she made with a matchbox - they render her human. And it's hard to despise another human being who has clearly had her share of troubles.
"As children we suspected that Mrs. Peacock was crazy," Sedaris writes. "As adults, though, we narrow it down and wonder if she wasn't clinically depressed."
The story wraps up with the dreaded Mrs. Peacock sharing a drink with the author's mom, discovering they shared a hard upbringing, and a disregard for the protestations of the rowdy siblings - hardly a parting sucker punch.
"That's Amore," is a paean to Helen, Sedaris' neighbor in New York - a creature seemingly sprung fully formed, like Venus from the waves, out of some gritty back alley, complete with taped-together glasses and a quiver of expletives.
"Someone asked me, 'Why are you friends with that horrible person?"' Sedaris says, explaining his fondness. "She was funny. She was always funny. Funny makes up for a lot."
This mellowing down - Sedaris says he's being "fairer" - comes with a realization that he's vulnerable as well.
"It's 'Golden Rule' writing," he says. "I think, 'What if it was about me?"'
In "Memento Mori," his obsession with death - and with Sedaris, nothing that could become an obsession worth mining for laughs is allowed to remain a passing thought - is overt. He describes his antagonistic relationship with a skeleton he bought as a gift for his long-suffering partner, Hugh. From the corner where it hangs in their bedroom, the 300-year-old body talks to him. Like Edgar Allan Poe's raven, the skeleton has only one thought:
"You are going to die."
Begging, pleading, offering to help it understand the wonders of modernity - for example, television - or trying to convince the ancient being that he invented television himself to comfort the old and sick wins Sedaris only a small measure of forgiveness.
"You are going to die ... someday," the skeleton concedes.
The book wraps up, fittingly, with "The Smoking Section," which delves into the painful details of Sedaris' successful effort to quit smoking.
Tallying up the cost, he figures it cost him about $20,000 to quit, between tickets to Tokyo - where he chose to go cold turkey - hotels, nicotine patches and the rest.
He calculates he'll recoup the cost if he manages to live another 17 cigarette-free years - writing all the while, he hopes.