The humor of David Sedaris is often so understated it feels perfectly naturalistic, as if he’s simply making up droll anecdotes off the top of his head. But Sedaris worked at his craft for decades, and often despaired of ever succeeding at the writing game.
This struggle is at the center of Sedaris’ new book, Theft by Finding, a collection literally taken from the diaries he has kept for more than forty years. Unvarnished, these entries offer up plenty of interesting and funny moments, some of which also serve as launchpads for his famous essays. Here are just ten moments in Theft by Finding (which ends in 2002, with a second volume to follow) that are alternatively hilarious, touching, and thought-provoking.
In the introduction, Sedaris interrupts a thoughtful rumination on the process of keeping a diary: “The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. That me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated?”
At the bottom of the page, a footnote addresses what Sedaris hilariously imagines is the gravest sin admitted to in that paragraph: “I do not think The Wire was overrated.”
The Banality of Evil
Sedaris encounters all manner of freaks, weirdos, and oddballs, especially during his penniless days working odd jobs and obsessing over money. He never fails to make these moments count by injecting them with humor. “Jews in concentration camps had shaved heads and tattoos,” he writes at one point about a skinhead in Chicago, “you’d think the anti-Semites would go for a different look.”
Mistakes, He’s Made a Few
One of the most remarkable aspects of reading Sedaris’ diary entries is how much we already know about his low moments and bad habits. Early on, in one of the first glimpses of his drug-fueled youth, he writes “Todd and I each took three hits of sugar cube acid. Too much. It was a real bad trip, like torture, enough to turn someone into a Christian.”
The Time Machine
Another fascinating aspect of Theft by Finding is literally traveling back in time through Sedaris’ writing. This comes through as both throwaway lines that remind us of zeitgeists past (“No matter where you go, you cannot escape the Bee Gees”) and devastating moments that call to mind what we have survived (in July 1981, Sedaris writes, “There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men. I heard about it on the radio tonight.”)
The Heartbreak Kid
Part of Sedaris’ appeal is the sad-sack aspect of his persona; he encounters the sort of terrible people we’re all far too familiar with—and he manages to turn his anger and hurt into savage humor, as in this line about a duplicitous lover named Brant he meets as a young man: “During sex he kept telling me that he loved me and wanted to get married, presumably in the next five weeks before he returns to Norfolk for the Summer.”
He drops the hammer in the next entry: “I called the number Brant gave me, and it was made up.”
Self-Awareness for the Win
While it’s possible these entries have been edited and massaged more than we know, they remain remarkably clear-eyed. After the subject of attempting sobriety after being “drunk every night for the past eighteen years” comes up, Sedaris adds in this two-sentence entry: “Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.”
Days of Future Past
It’s thrilling when kernels of Sedaris’ formal work pop up in his diaries—you can almost see the wheels turning, as when he alludes to his time at SantaLand: “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.’”
The diary never treats Sedaris’ drinking and drug abuse in a melodramatic way, and it’s often the source of some of the book’s funniest bits, as when he describes the suffering of a hungover friend: “You’d think an adult would know better: beer on wine, you’re fine. Wine on beer, stand clear. But eleven Prosecco cocktails should not precede anything, not even a twelfth.”
These are, it goes without saying, words to live by.
It’s not all jokes and skinheads; Sedaris also celebrates life’s incredible moments along the way, as when he first meets his future partner, Hugh: “I…got him to say that he hated me, which usually means the opposite….When I turned around to look at him, I saw that he’d turned around as well. It was romantic.”
No matter how serious life gets, though, Sedaris can’t help but be funny, so let’s just include three random moments of hilarity we loved:
“Talked to Rodrigo, who uses camebackir as a verb meaning ‛to come back.’ Nosotros comebackamos. ‛We come back.’”
“It turned out they were a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is better than being a pair of thieves, but still.”
Theft by Finding is a surprising and unique work, the raw experiences of one of our most accomplished humorists and writers laid bare for our amusement and inspection. It’s also almost novelistic in the story of a life that it paints, slowly revealing themes, recurring characters, and a narrative drive that mirrors Sedaris’ development as a human being and an artist. In a word, it’s terrific.