Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002)

Photo: Marshall Troy

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Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002)
528 pages; Little, Brown and Company
As the saying goes, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." And if it's hard to be funny, it's an astounding feat to stay funny—wildly, wickedly, ingeniously so—for more than 20 years. Yet David Sedaris has somehow pulled it off, in exhilarating essays that zero in on the absurd and the poignant with eviscerating wit and radiant humanity.

Now Sedaris devotees will thrill to this source book for his oeuvre, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002), a volume that traverses his career and proves the adage "Truth is stranger than fiction." You might expect to find introspection or self-reckoning in these pages, but Sedaris is no ordinary diarist. He's more like a private detective, sneaking around and capturing his subjects in moments when they think no one's looking.

The entries start with a road trip. Sedaris is 20, picking apples, dropping acid and meeting the destitute, the strange, the crazy. Interestingly, things stay this wacky for the next two decades. Sedaris attracts, or is compulsively attracted to, characters who are comic catnip. Take his friend Doug, who's "been single for as long as I've known him and [who] went out recently with a guy who took him to bed and whispered, 'Let's pretend we're cousins.'"

Fans will no doubt delight in the entries that will turn into Sedaris's most beloved essays; it's like seeing sketches of favorite paintings. The writing workshop he teaches in 1988 will become the platform for "The Learning Curve"; the inane French class he takes in 1998 will make its way into two stories in Me Talk Pretty One Day. The scenes are skeletal, but Sedaris's keen powers of observation are on display, as is his way with the deadpan. It's worth noting that Sedaris's essays are more intimate than anything in his personal journals. His mother's cancer and its effects on her and the family are detailed in "Ashes," but here the pages that span her diagnosis and death provide a mere record of the events. The same goes for his fraught relationship with his father, documented in "Hejira," but recounted without embellishment here: "Since Dad's arrival, all he's done is yell at people. He'll ask someone on the street for directions, then tell them they don't know what they're talking about." Sex, drugs, excessive drinking—they're mentioned, but not dwelled on. Instead, we're treated to a portrait of the artist as a young man, albeit one with an old and singular soul. "In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it...." he muses in the book's introduction. "Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it."
— Fiona Maazel