Theft By Finding by David Sedaris review – diaries to make you gasp

The humorist’s material includes drug addiction, crazy jobs, his eccentric family and homophobic abuse – but much is achingly funny

In his introduction to the first instalment of his diaries, the humorist David Sedaris outlines the difference between the diary a person imagines they will keep, in which they rail against political and social injustice, and the one in which they find themselves “questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford”. The latter is more entertaining, of course, and, in keeping with the waspish tone of his essays, it’s these types of reflection that make up the first volume.

Aside from the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, which he watches in Paris on TV with one hand on the remote and the other on the phone, political events rarely figure, with Sedaris preferring to record unusual or surprising things that he has seen, overheard, or that people have told him.

What we have here is in fact only a fraction of the material available. There were 156 volumes of diaries in total and, as if the process of reading about himself and condensing them wasn’t hard enough, he says, “I’d have to spend the rest of the day being me.”

The diary begins in 1977 with 21-year-old Sedaris hitchhiking around the United States and sleeping variously in a dried-out riverbed, on a golf course and under a bridge. He smokes pot and takes acid and, to earn money, picks and packs fruit and washes dishes. In Knoxville, Ohio, a drunk pickup driver tries to assault him, prompting him to jump out of the truck while it’s still moving. Afterwards he flags down a car whose occupants offer to take him to Cincinnati. Throughout the journey they throw cans out of the window and say that all black people should be slaves. “Oh boy. What a day,” Sedaris sighs.

Devoted readers of his essays will be able to fill in some of the gaps. They will know, for instance, that home for Sedaris until his early 20s is Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is one of six siblings in a Greek-American family, the members of which are the major players in some of his most cherished tales. It’s hard to imagine the Sedaris we know now, a bestselling author accustomed to first-class travel who can easily fill up New York’s Carnegie Hall, as a waster. But here he is, evicted from the family home by his father and living in a run-down apartment where he uses his ironing board as a dining table. He spends several years here building sculptures while taking crystal meth, which certainly accounts for the brevity of the entries. (In the introduction, Sedaris points out that he actually wrote reams during this period – “solid walls of words, and every last one of them complete bullshit … The gist is all you need.”)

Even through the chemical fog, however, his ability to watch and listen is clear. By day he works in construction jobs where he eavesdrops gloomily on the likes of “TW”, who yells at every woman who passes and is a member of the Johnston County KKK.

Sedaris’s observations continue to sharpen throughout the 1980s and there are stories here about women being beaten by their boyfriends and African Americans being racially abused that are as effective as any sociopolitical polemic. And yet it’s either a result of the times in which Sedaris is writing, or his own naivety, that his observations about race can prompt discomfort, too: seeing a young black kid having a seizure at his local breakfast joint in 1988, he remarks on the boy’s altered complexion as he is wheeled by. “Do black people become pale?” he asks. “Why didn’t I know that?”

It’s not unusual to find Sedaris at the sharp end of other people’s bigotry: he is repeatedly called a “faggot” and on one occasion is spat at in the face at close range. At no point does he seem cowed or even especially furious. Even when he is at the centre of the story, he retains the air of a fly-on-the-wall documentarian and, long before his writing career takes off, seems instinctively aware that the bigger the mishap, the better the anecdote later on.

Sedaris’s journey to respectability begins in his mid-20s when he moves to Chicago to go to art college. This was when he started writing in earnest, though there is scant mention of that here. On completing his studies, he gets a job as a lecturer and, after several years, scrapes enough money to move to New York, where he takes odd jobs in removals, painting and decorating, and, as depicted in the essay, “Santaland Diaries”, as a Christmas elf in Macy’s. It’s in New York that he also meets his boyfriend, the painter Hugh Hamrick, though Sedaris’s account of their burgeoning romance is typically short on detail.

It’s worth noting that, even as his reputation grows as a writer, the menial work continues, as much, you imagine, for the rich material as the money. One day he’ll be giving an interview for a New York Times profile, the next he’ll be lugging furniture up six flights of stairs, and quietly carping at its owner’s refusal to pitch in and help.

These vignettes are often achingly funny and, even when leading us into the darker corners of the Sedaris psyche, they can still make you gasp. In 2000, after being tested and found negative for HIV, he notes: “it’s going to take a while for the news to sink in. I’m not disappointed; I just need to figure out what to do between now and the time I develop cancer.”

So often Sedaris’s phrasing is beautiful in its piquancy and minimalism. If you’ve listened to him on NPR or Radio 4, you’ll no doubt hear his voice in your head, indignant and amused, delivering each sentence with perfect comic timing. His life is extraordinary in so many ways – the drug addiction, the eccentric family, the crazy jobs, the fame, the globetrotting – but one of the more unlikely achievements here is in making it all seem quite ordinary. Ultimately, his masterstroke is in acting as a bystander in his own story. It’s other people’s lives that Sedaris finds most fascinating and, by extension, so do we.

Theft by Finding is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Fiona Sturges

The GuardianTramp

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