I’m always amused whenever I peek at the inside flap of a new book by David Sedaris and the accompanying profile promoting him as “the author of Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day”. I prefer him as the culturally insensitive lout behind the incendiary gastrological piece “Chicken Toenails, Anyone?” that inflamed literally dozens – dozens! – across the net. I wonder if the real cause for outrage was the disappointment was his failure to lionize the local cuisine or learning how differences between Chinese kitchen and bathroom etiquette is mostly aspirational.
Yeah, I said it. Maybe it’s because so much of what Sedaris relates is so assiduously styled that some may not realize how rude or offensive he can seem – to other people. Isn’t it always about other people when it comes to pointing out human foibles and slight imperfections? I’m sure Sedaris would agree, given how often he’s the center of his own self-related misery. But when it comes to offending a certain class of snobs, I’m all for it.
Given his penchant for finding any and all loose threads to pull apart, I’d been curious what would be the one topic that would finally set them off. Turns out it was Chinese phlegm and public defecation. Who knew? “Chicken Toenails” was included in his last collection of essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, whose re-publication failed to drum up much in the way of repeat protests. It’s still well worth your time.
As if you couldn’t tell by the title, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) is the first of a planned set of diary collections by Sedaris, which is good. Those who’ve grown to love hearing him read aloud from his mysterious journals alongside his published work are in for a treat as he’s chosen a nice selection from over (he estimates) 8 million words scribbled, typed, and kept safe from a very transformational 25-year span. Again, for those who prefer their Sedaris spoken, opt for the audiobook version; Sedaris, as he’s wont to do, provides the narration.
It’s worth noting that the entries contained in this volume are not in their original form; Sedaris has done a bit of historical tidying up, changing names or descriptions that may have been too revealing or embarrassing. He even admits to rewriting things that were “unclear” or “when the writing was clunky and uninviting.” These admissions may disappoint those fans salivating over the chance to retrace his evolving literary progression across a 25-year span.
This George Lucas-style treatment of past-perfection, if you will, is the creator’s prerogative. That man’s entire career is essentially one long diary entry, anyway, so best not to get upset over a few well-chosen crumbs. Basically, you’ll get over 500 pages of “new” old Sedaris writings here.
Such is the seductiveness of cultural iconoclasts like Sedaris. He’s been such a staple on NPR for so long that countless new talent have begun mimicking not just his laid-back speaking tone but even appropriating his trademark style of exaggerated embellishment. Honestly, it’s hard to tell one apart from the other over there these days, and the stylistic theft is shameless. I wonder if Ira Glass even knows what he’s wrought.
Personally, I didn’t care for later entries focusing on celebrities and “insider” peeks at the privileged class; the entire concept of staged “reality” – however it’s transmitted – doesn’t interest me in the slightest. That includes those bits chosen for inclusion here, though I’d like to think Sedaris is signaling a similar distaste as his ‘outside’ markings of celebrity deaths eventually give way to personal interactions. Again, there aren’t many, and that’s a good thing.
No surprise, various family members appear often, especially those of sister Amy (the actress), sister Tiffany, and brother Paul. One could draw a remarkable line of maturity and acceptance between a younger Sedaris (the writer) and the elder (his father). In some ways this collection serves as further behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Sedaris family many have come to ‘know’ intimately via his writings over the years.
What is clear, however, is the sheer joy and exhilaration of an artist coming into his own. From the initial desperation of hitchhiking across the country, often living hand to mouth, to those first moments of recognition as a writer, a humble-jumble narrative begins to emerge: Sedaris relays his early struggles with hardcore narcotics and alcohol giving way to tackling foreign languages (French, mainly), the quest for domestic tranquility with boyfriend Hugh, death, and pretty much anything else the universe dare throw in his path. Spiders, anyone?
IHOP, a respectable substitute for Denny’s, is a common fixture, as is NPR. Who else but Sedaris could turn the extraordinary into mere happenstance with such a light touch, as when noting “There was an accident yesterday at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, so a lot of people talked about it.” (March 29, 1979) Or noting, astutely, “There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men. I heard about it on the radio tonight.” (July 3, 1983)
On sitting through the movie Kiss the Girls, “the worst thing I’ve seen in a long time”, and another endless advertisement for Titanic. “Who do they think is going to see that movie?” (October 5, 1997)
Others are more reflective, as when a shaved head, tattooed skinhead caught smashing windows and painting swastikas outside Jewish businesses made him think of concentration camp survivors: “You’d think the anti-Semites would go for a different look.” (November 17, 1987)
It’s no surprise that later entries are longer, more detailed than what came before them as the “diary” itself becomes a surrogate for Sedaris’ own published work. Observant readers will probably identify certain passages and characters as ‘familiar’, inasmuch as they also appear in some primordial form or another, such as fan-favorite essays “The Santaland Diaries” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day”.
The latter-half of 2001’s entries shift under the weight of 9-11, the inescapable creep of patriotism, flags, and swelling of national pride, even for expats like himself. “Whatever else Paris might be, this is not our home, it’s just a place where we have our jobs and apartments. How could we have forgotten that?” (September 14, 2001). Of course, just months later comes the inevitable release, especially when noting a sign offering patriotic shirts at 50 percent off: “Tax time is here and people are realizing that pride costs money.” (April 6, 2002)
Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) is a fine collection of sanctioned journal entries from a man already famous for sharing the intimacies of his life and observations with the world. It’s never entirely clear when the ‘finished’ David Sedaris emerges from these entries, that cosmic *click* as the satirical merges with the observant realist into a cheerful and often hilarious misanthropy. I’m genuinely curious if some will attempt to gleam deeper meaning (or crib stylistic flourish) from these entries, as Sedaris has never been that kind of writer. As a master of the passive-aggressive Id, I wonder what he’d think of that.