David Sedaris’ “Theft by Finding” is a collection of selected diary entries from 1977 to 2002 that presumably were source material for much of his published work.
“Theft by Finding: Diaries, 1977-2002”
by David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company, 560 pp., $28
Whether we are writers or not, most of us try to make sense of the world by binding together the disparate parts of our lives while discarding the odd and seemingly random moments. David Sedaris, on the other hand, revels in those moments, finding meaning and humor in life’s interstices. This is his unique genius as a writer, and as his new book confirms, it’s who he is.
Sedaris vaulted to fame in 1992 when he became a regular contributor on National Public Radio, regaling listeners with his quirky and hilarious stories of urban living. Delivering his lines in a wry deadpan, he recounted working as an elf in a department store “Santaland,” cleaning people’s apartments in New York City, and relating to family members, among other experiences. In the next two decades, he filled a half-dozen autobiographical books with these stories.
“Theft by Finding” is a collection of selected diary entries from 1977 to 2002 and presumably is the source for much of his published work. In 1977, Sedaris was 20 years old and eked out a living picking fruit in Oregon and through other temporary jobs. Unmoored and estranged from his family at times, he was so poor that he often didn’t have enough money to pay his phone or electric bills. He was a heavy user of drugs and alcohol. After he moved to Chicago to attend art college, he began to write more seriously and to collaborate with his sister, Amy, on several plays. In 1990, he relocated to New York City, where his career began to flourish. (Amy went on to find success as a comedian and actress.)
Over the course of 25 years of keeping diaries, Sedaris’ writing develops from two or three-sentence epigrams to longer, more complex prose, but the essence of his style remains the same: elevating and celebrating life’s absurdities and everyday moments. In Chicago, New York and Raleigh, North Carolina, the variety of odd jobs he takes on to make ends meet supplies a colorful cast of characters and their back stories. Many of the people Sedaris singles out are angry, forgotten or down and out, and although he is unsparing in the rendering, he withholds explicit judgment.
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Like photographer Diane Arbus, he has a keen eye for the peculiar, and like comedian Henny Youngman, he has a wicked sense of comic timing — as in this entry from Paris in 1998 about his French teacher, an abusive taskmaster who frequently shouts at her students, berating them for their ignorance: “Today the teacher called me a sadist. I tried to say that was like the pot calling the kettle black but came out with something closer to ‘That is like a pan saying to a dark pan, you are pan.’ ”
He’s perhaps most droll (and tender) when depicting the people he knows best: his parents and siblings. About his mother, he writes haiku-like in 1981: “Mom took me to the IHOP for lunch and told me not to worry about the $20 I owe her. It’s her birthday.” In a 1990 entry, he recounts that his sometimes irascible father “doesn’t pay attention when you talk to him so [his brother] Paul’s taken to throwing the term IRS into his sentences. Then it’s suddenly: ‘Hold on a second, what did you say?’ ”
Sedaris doesn’t just play for laughs. His deceptively dispassionate delivery also serves him well when describing stark encounters with poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia.
What is fascinating about this book is that narrative coherence is not apparent from one sentence or paragraph to the next, but emerges through the sequence of entries over many years, revealing the habits and character of the writer himself — and his idiosyncratic humor.