‘Not everyone writes things down in a notebook and then transcribes them into a diary,” David Sedaris wrote in 2006. “Fewer still will take that diary, clean it up a bit, and read it in front of an audience.”
Sedaris has been doing just that for more than 20 years. He has also parlayed his diary entries into comic essays that play hyperbolically with his family history, his sexual and workplace mishaps, his attempts to learn French, his smoking/drinking/drug habits, his lovingly bickering relationship with his longtime partner, Hugh Hamrick, and more.
The essays have naturally stirred curiosity about the diary itself. With his new book, “Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002,” Sedaris satisfies that curiosity.
“Theft by Finding” reveals that the essays are artful expansions of surprisingly minimal diary notations. Take “C.O.G.,” his hilarious account of apple-picking in Oregon. It’s a masterfully orchestrated 50-page narrative. By contrast, the diary entries from which it’s drawn are mere snippets — although you can see their potential. (“I want to be with my friends,” Sedaris complains at one point, “not going to church with John or staring down a dildo collection at Tom’s.”)
Sedaris acknowledges the bare-bones nature of his diary writings in his introduction.
“I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change.” He also points out that “Theft by Finding” cuts down 156 diary volumes to a mere 500 pages, with more to come in a planned second volume covering 2003 through 2017.
“An entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, I dare say, sensitive. On any given day I am all these things and more: stupid, cheerful, misanthropic, cruel, narrow-minded, open, petty — the list goes on and on.”
Sometimes even the briefest of these early comments can evoke a long-ago era. “No matter where you go,” he writes in 1978, “you cannot escape the Bee Gees.”
At other times, his I-Am-A-Camera detachment feels like a shortcoming. “There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men,” he notes in 1981. “I heard about it on the radio tonight.”
About midway through the book, however, the inimitable Sedaris voice we all know starts to emerge. The anecdotes grow more artfully, antically shaped. His reactions to all the strange people and incidents that come his way make him open up to the reader a little more.
Several revelations emerge. Sedaris in his 20s and early 30s was not in a good place mentally. He was a continually drunk and/or stoned college dropout who worked odd jobs, lived in dives in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C., and relied on occasional handouts from his mother. His drug intake — grass, acid, crystal meth — was prodigious.
By his late 20s, he wanted to turn his life around: “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.”
His opportunity as a writer came in 1992 in New York, when NPR’s Ira Glass asked to record his “Santaland Diaries” for broadcast on “Morning Edition.”
In New York, he also met and fell in love with Hamrick, launched a play-writing career with his sister Amy, and increased his alcohol consumption. “I’d have to double-check,” he quips, “but I’m pretty sure I’ve been drunk every night for the past eighteen years.”
In 1999, he abruptly quits drinking. He also gives up pot. His career takes off. He and Hugh move to Paris and Normandy. He tours the world. More ornery oddballs cross his path every time he steps out his door, and he makes the most of them.
He occasionally has regrets about essays he has published, including “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” where he feels he’s been too hard on his chalk-throwing French teacher. His social circle also starts to include some famous names, but he doesn’t forget where he came from.
Out at a restaurant with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy and his wife, he’s amazed by all the alterations to menu items they request: “They weren’t malicious, but I can’t imagine that either of them ever worked in a restaurant.” Sedaris, of course, did.
Loving portraits of all his family members are threaded through the book, no matter how outrageous or distressing their behavior is. His reactions to world events go from being telegraphic to expansive.
The keenest moment comes at a 9/11 memorial service in Paris when he realizes just how far from New York and Raleigh he is. “[W]hatever else Paris might be, this is not our home, it’s just the place where we have our jobs or apartments. How could we have forgotten that?”
Passages like that make you eager for volume two.
THEFT BY FINDING:
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown, 528 pp., $28
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.