THEFT BY FINDING: Diaries 1977-2002, by David Sedaris. Little, Brown and Company; 513 pp.; $28.
David Sedaris’ diaries? Really? U.S. readers have already bought 10.5 million books based on this autobiographical material, from “Barrel Fever” (1994) to “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” (2013). Since 1991, he’s been entertaining audiences by reading excerpts from the stage; a current show has ticket prices up to $120.
Clearly, we love the guy. But could this be one too many trips to the well?
Good tidings, ladies and gentlemen of the fan club. While some of the pleasures of “Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002” are familiar from the earlier books, it has virtues that make it a standout among them.
In the “familiar” category is the type of material referred to by the title, Sedaris’ version of found poetry — all the bizarre overheard conversations, jokes, news items and creatures (vertebrate and invertebrate) that Sedaris runs into every day. Whether he’s in an IHOP in Raleigh or his apartment in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, his eye for the absurd and the vulgar is infallible and his deadpan prose style inimitable. If that were not sufficient to induce hilarity, there’s the constant onslaught of strangers asking him for money and/or mistaking him for a woman.
Also tried and true is making fun of his family and friends. On Aug. 2, 1981, his pal Ronnie is raging about the royal wedding. “ ‘Did you know that silkworms spun the fabric for her dress?’ ‘Silkworms spin everyone’s silk,’ I told her. ‘That’s where silk comes from.’ ”
Mom, Dad, Gretchen, Tiffany, Paul, Lisa . . . they’re all here, and sister Amy’s troublemaking one-liners are a running gag. You’ll also find the raw material for beloved essays such as “The Santaland Diaries” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” Oddly enough, they are funny all over again.
Sedaris’ personal essays are put together so carefully that none of the seams show; they often ingeniously build to a sneak attack of wisdom or poignancy in the final lines. Here, the relatively artless diary entries, short and long, sequenced and non sequitur, add up to something we’ve never gotten before — a big, juicy narrative arc. It comprises 25 years of an essentially heartwarming success story, any potential ickiness kept in check by Sedaris’ judicious minimalism.
For example, the love life. For most of the book, it consists of occasional, uninspiring encounters. But by March 1991, a new character named Hugh has appeared a couple of times. On the 21st, Sedaris writes, following a grocery list, “This spring I am, if I’m not mistaken, in love.”
As for drugs and alcohol, in September 1979, he reveals his “favorite way to take crystal” and transactions to buy weed are an ongoing source of laughs. Still, it’s a jolt on March 23, 1999, when he writes, “I haven’t had a drink in forty-eight hours” and it turns out it’s the first time he’s gone more than a day without drinking in decades. The entries after that acknowledge the full extent of his alcoholism. One wonders if he edited it out in the preceding sections, or if he was hiding it from himself.
We also get to observe the making of a writer. On Feb. 16, 1988, a list of “Reasons to live” includes the dreams of “writing a published book” and “being interviewed by Terry Gross on ‘Fresh Air.’ ” On Oct. 15, 1990, he calls Phillip Morris to try to get an agent — the cigarette company, not the William Morris talent agency.
When the Village Voice recommends his stage show in 1991, he is so shocked he sends a thank-you note. Shortly after, his first “great” review appears — in Newsday. Soon he will be on NPR for the first time.
But, oh, dear, by January 1996 he reports, “It really is torture to sit around the house and write all day.” Career success takes a toll on the narrative momentum. Entries from 2001 and 2002, mostly about book tours and life in Paris, feel more dilatory and less pithy than what’s come before.
David Sedaris may be living a charmed life, but perhaps the best news from “Theft by Finding” is that on May 8, 2000, he reveals the good-luck charm he’s been using religiously since 1976. His partner, Hugh, now uses it, too. Whether or not you believe in good luck charms, I recommend you buy the book and get the details immediately.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the ticket price for a David Sedaris show. Official ticket prices go up to $120; scalpers may charge significantly more.