Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002)
"The big surprise about David Sedaris’s new book, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002), is how very good it is."
I mean, what with that awful combination of title and subtitle, one that offers any number of red flags—not the least of which is the specificity of the dates, something that implies there may be another volume with diary entries from 2003 until present day—worry sets in as the reader cracks the volume.
Then there’s the whole concept of an author publishing his diaries himself. Most—and here I pause to recommend The Noel Coward Diaries, which is perhaps the very best of this sort of volume—are published after the author-in-question’s passing, collected and edited by a third party whose job it is to extract the very best bits of what is likely to have been years worth of verbal bric-a-brac into something insightful, entertaining, even scandalous, while in no way libelous.
As such, they often represent the bottom of the barrel in terms of a given author’s output, in that they were created not for public consumption, but instead as a source of remembrance for the author, and very often as a means of putting pen to paper in a manner not unlike computer software undergoing several beta stages before arriving at a finished form.
Thus, the conversations recorded, anecdotes committed to print, may find their way into becoming short stories, song lyrics, and/or bits of dialogue that will one day be found in Act II of something staged.
At their best, diaries that have been well edited display the evolution of a given author (or other notable) in terms of their artistic as well as their personal growth. At their worst, they are vapid things, mirrors held high by the egotistical, pellet guns waved about by the vengeful.
In his introduction, Sedaris lets us all know that he is more than aware of the dangers of the task he has taken on. He writes:
“It wasn’t easy revisiting what are now 156 volumes of my diary. I broke the job up—a month or two per day—but after reading about me, I’d have to spend the rest of the day being me. I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything quite so exhausting. Hugh would be in the next room and hear me shout thing like “Will you shut up!” and “Who cares about the goddam pocket square!”
“’Who are you talking to?’ he’d ask.
“’Me in 2001,’ I’d answer.”
There is a sense of ongoing conversations between Old Man Sedaris today and his past selves (1977–2002) throughout the work. Such as this, which he again notes in his introduction:
“It took me a while in the 1970s to write the word gay. ‘Oh, please,’ I said out loud to my twenty-year-old self while reading my earliest diaries. ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’”
And in that the author himself is doing the edits, the “conversation” is made most notable by the selections themselves, by the dates that are chosen among the many that were cast aside (156 volumes, remember?), as well as by the edits that allow for the punch lines—and there are many—to pay off.
But the best reason for these myriad diary entries is contained within a single entry from July, 1983:
“This is Friday. I worked hard all week and have paid my rent and bills. There is “$60 left over, so I can’t complain. After coming home, I listened to the radio and cleaned up a little. A woman on All Things Considered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and mentioned the importance of keeping a diary. It was valuable, she said, because after a while you’d stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts.”
I’m not quite sure on what specific date Sedaris transitions from seeing his diary as a sort of forced march and begins allowing it instead to be a gathering of pictures from the exhibition that is his own life, but by the end of this collection of entries, the reader feels not only that he has been treated to an illustration of the evolution of an author—sort of like the one with the tadpole crawling out on land and, with legs, clubs and animal pelts, ending up as modern man—but also as an autobiography of the sort that, given its utter honesty, most of us are incapable of writing.
In this layered, chunky diary-as-memoir, there are several types of entry, each of which is repeated again and again.
There are those entries that represent the author himself finding delight in the works of others, as this, from May, 1984:
“Edith Sitwell said that one of her favorite pastimes was to sharpen her claws on the wooden heads of her opponents.”
Or the entries that, instead, record and illustrate our author’s own turn of phrase. Like this, from October, 1981:
“Again last night I went to Lyn’s and watched the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club. Jim Bakker, the cohost, is desperate for $50 million. He looks like a baby monkey. Not just a baby. Not just a monkey.”
Or this, from June 18, 1999, while the author was in Paris:
“Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.”
Others are simple historical markers that allow the author and reader alike to remind themselves of just where we are in human history.
Again, from 1981, this time the month of February:
“Jean Harris was convicted of second-degree murder. I kind of liked her.”
And from July, 1981, there’s this:
“There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men. I heard about it on the radio tonight.”
More entertainingly, Theft by Finding contains any number of nodules of the sort that only David Sedaris seems capable of finding along the path wending through everyday life.
From May 6, 1986:
“I found this excellent bit of advice in The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette: ‘If you start to shake hands with someone who has lost an arm, shake his other hand. If he has lost both arms, shake the tip of his artificial hand (be quick and unembarrassed about it).’”
From December, 1997:
“I bought a half dozen books this week on horrible diseases, some for me and some to give to Gretchen for Christmas. My favorite is of a woman with horrible arthritis. Her fingers are twisted and tapered, almost like carrots, yet her nails are beautifully manicured and painted. She’s working with what she has. The same is true of gum diseases viewed through lipsticked mouths.”
Perhaps this entry is more important than others in that in revealing our author’s respect for those working with what they have, it also reveals the source of the author’s humor. He is, after all, in his way, doing the same.
And the diaries offer much evidence that Sedaris’s brand of humor was birthed in misery. Especially in the early years of the diaries, there are numerous references to money, or lack thereof, and to apartments and neighborhoods choked with poverty and the anger it promotes. And then there are those like this, entered into the diary on September 26, 1981:
“While I was walking down Hillsborough Street after visiting Lyn last night, a carload of drunk guys pulled alongside me and shouted threats. ‘Fucking faggot!’ they yelled. ‘We’ll kick your ass.’ They were really into it, acting as if I’d done something to them personally, or to their mothers. At one point I was pretty sure they were going to get out of the car and start something. I wondered then if it would be too undignified to take off and run into the Hilton. As it was, I ignored them until they drove off. ‘Faggot.’ It seems to be written all over my face lately.”
But like a book-length “It Gets Better” ad, Theft by Finding shows that, for Sedaris, bit by bit, with a move to New York City and some success, and after finding Hugh, who would become his husband, things do indeed improve, as well as that some degree of fame and some bit of fortune do indeed buffer against the worst things in life.
March 9, 1991:
“Roger Donald called from Little, Brown to say he would like to negotiate a two-book deal. To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.”
There’s something so lovely about that detail, about that denim shirt. And something so moving from this entry from April, 1997:
“This morning at the Seattle airport I saw a kid, maybe ten years old, jerking his head every fifteen seconds or so. It was like seeing myself as a boy. His father said, ‘Aaron, I’m warning you . . .’ I wanted to rush over and scoop the kid up.”
The contents of Theft by Finding make the reader yearn for more. Not for the diary entries from 2003 through 2017, but instead for the wonderful novel that David Sedaris has lodged inside of himself. The one that will have to be a movie and then a musical and then a sitcom and finally an HBO miniseries that allows for the full blossoming of the novel into another medium at last.
The one that will have the time for moments of pure, beautiful reflection, like this, from October, 1999:
“The movie Groundhog Day was released in Germany with the title Eternally Weeps the Groundhog. That is so beautiful.”