'Theft By Finding' opens a window into David Sedaris's past through his diaries

David Sedaris has made a literary career out of transforming the events of his life into mordantly comic prose. What does a look into his source material tell us?

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) By David Sedaris Little, Brown and Company 582 pp.

Back in 2007, in the wake of the brouhaha over James Frey’s fabricated memoirs, David Sedaris received some flak for straying from the strictly factual in his personal narratives – yet classifying them as nonfiction rather than fiction. In our current era of alarming “alternative facts,” drawing clear lines between fact and fiction has never seemed so important.

But comic writers have always received a special dispensation when it comes to accuracy. We who consider Sedaris a Great American Humorist applaud the way he shapes and embellishes his stories, helping us to perform a sort of mental Pilates, tilting and stretching our perceptions to reveal core truths. Do I care whether he markets his books as memoirs or fiction? Not really – just so long as he keeps producing them.

Sedaris addresses these issues – obliquely – with the publication of Theft by Finding, the first of two planned volumes of selections from his diaries. In pulling back the curtain on some of the source material for his work, he provides an invaluable peek into what struck him as worthy of note over the years and, more interestingly, how he transformed himself between 1977 and 2002 from a meth-fueled college dropout living hand-to-mouth on odd jobs to a wildly successful writer and performer.

Sedaris generally finds material for his writing close at hand, and his diaries are filled with accounts of close encounters of the uncomfortable kind, many of which eventually made it into his books, beginning with "Barrel Fever," "Naked," and "Me Talk Pretty One Day." These experiences include disturbing homophobic taunts and gobs of spit launched at him in 1970s-’80s Raleigh, North Carolina, his hometown; being trapped in planes for hours beside unbearably loquacious seatmates; and enough incidents of vitriol and violence outside bars or inside a Chicago IHOP, his de facto cafeteria and hangout for years, to make you want to retreat to a monastery. There are riffs on his chalk-throwing French teacher at the Alliance Française in Paris and on his obsessive patrolling for roadside litter near his home in Sussex, England. And, of course, there are reports through the decades on the close-knit Family Sedaris.

Just don’t expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth in these accounts. Diaries, like memoirs, are by their nature subjective. And as Sedaris states up front, “It’s worth mentioning that this is my edit. Of the roughly eight million words handwritten or typed into my diary since September 5, 1977, I’m including only a small fraction. An entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive.”

N.B.: Some entries have been revised as well as expurgated. Is it any wonder that a beautiful stylist who hones his work through live performances and countless drafts couldn’t resist a few tweaks? “I have rewritten things when they were unclear or, as was more often the case in the early years, when the writing was clunky and uninviting,” he notes. In other words, what we’re reading has been filtered many times over through the fine strainer of David Sedaris’s exacting literary standards. We’ve been spared the dreck. What’s left may have been enhanced for maximum effect. It is never boring.

Intentionally or not, the quarter century covered in this volume presents a quintessentially American rags-to-riches narrative arc. The earliest entries are the bleakest, excavated from “solid walls of words,” much of it “complete bullshit.” It’s a portrait of the artist in a perpetual funk – broke, drugged, doing filthy maintenance work at his parents’ Raleigh rental properties or picking fruit out west, living on pancake mix augmented by occasional care packages from his mother. Still, you can spot the germ of Sedaris’s offbeat sensibility in observations like this, from 1981: “Half the people I know have dead animals in their freezers: reptiles, birds, mammals. Is that normal?”

By 1982, Sedaris was seriously thinking about going back to college, declaring, “I used to think I could teach myself anything I needed to know, but I’m not sure I believe that anymore. I’d like to be educated and mature.” Leaving Raleigh for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in winter 1984 is the first major turning point of his life, though he’s still doing drugs and barely supporting himself with poorly paid hourly labor, stripping wood and cleaning houses. But his ambition has been woken, and in an extraordinary entry dated February 1988, the recent graduate is remarkably clear about his values:

Reasons to live:

  1. Christmas
  2. The family beach trip
  3. Writing a published book
  4. Seeing my name in a magazine
  5. Watching C. grow bald
  6. Ronnie Ruedrich
  7. Seeing Amy on TV
  8. Other people’s books
  9. Outliving my enemies
  10. Being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air

Within months of writing this wish list, he lands a job teaching a writing workshop at the Art Institute, and his sister Amy makes it into the Second City touring company. About his own achievement, he comments, “Dad is super proud of me” – a situation rare enough to mention. (Years later, in 2001, when his sister Lisa tells their father that David is #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, he says, “Well, he sure isn’t #1 on The Wall Street Journal.“)

The next big turning point for Sedaris was moving to New York City in 1990. His first entries note the high cost of pot and groceries, and the ubiquity of electrical tape in stores. He meets Hugh Hamrick when borrowing a ladder and comments shortly, “This spring I am, if I’m not mistaken, in love.” He’s cleaning fancier homes than he’s ever seen but also lands a job as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand. Fans know what the airing of that story, on Ira Glass’s Morning Edition in December 1992, led to – but I don’t recall this hilarious line: “Yesterday a woman had her son pee into a cup, which of course tipped over. ‘That’s fine,’ I said, ‘but Santa’s also going to need a stool sample.’ ”

Before the books start coming, along with the endless global reading tours, and the moves abroad to France and then England, he and Amy write and produce a number of Off-Broadway plays. Ben Brantley raves in The New York Times in a 1997 overall review of the Lincoln Center Festival (which included the Sedarises’ “Incident at Cobbler’s Knob”), “This brother-and-sister playwriting team has an unparalleled ear for American cultural clichés and an equally fine hand for twisting those clichés into devastating absurdity.”

Meanwhile, his mother dies not long after her lung cancer diagnosis, his father continues to carp on him, and Tiffany, the youngest of his four sisters (who committed suicide in 2013), frequently calls in tears, increasingly unhinged, ranting and picking fights.

As Sedaris’s literary star rises in the early 1990s, his diary becomes noticeably more artful – and funnier. Many entries are obviously crafted to be read aloud at live events, dry runs for stories featuring Stadium Pals, pet spiders, aggressive beggars, and his uphill battle with the French language. While his diaries in general tend toward the descriptive and observational over the confessional, Sedaris occasionally mentions his feelings, such as his guilt over having “fallen deeper into the luxury pit” after moving into a fancily renovated Paris apartment: “We sit around like people in a magazine, but it’s not the sort of magazine I’d ever subscribe to,” he writes in August 2001.

"Theft by Finding" takes its title from a British expression for discovering something of value and keeping it. These diary entries have value, all right. Sedaris has essentially raided his own deep freezer for this book – and serves up a surprisingly satisfying meal from the choicest items.

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