Vi­gnettes and frag­ments

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bee­jay Sil­cox

It’s Septem­ber 1977. A young David Sedaris has dropped out of col­lege and is hitch­hik­ing across ru­ral Amer­ica. He’s work­ing me­nial jobs, qui­etly drink­ing too much and flirt­ing with metham­phetamine. But it is an­other habit that will be the mak­ing of him: ev­ery night he writes in a di­ary, “solid walls of words, and ev­ery last one of them bull­shit”.

Four decades, a half-dozen best­selling books and eight mil­lion di­ary words later, Sedaris, Amer­ica’s pre-em­i­nent hu­morist, has pro­duced Theft by Find­ing: Di­aries Vol­ume One, a cu­rated col­lec­tion of di­ary en­tries cov­er­ing 1977 to 2002, and a chron­i­cle of his hap­haz­ard tra­jec­tory from itin­er­ant house­painter to lit­er­ary star.

This 500-page-plus vol­ume, the first of two planned re­leases, tracks Sedaris, who is 60, through his for­lorn 20s, trans­for­ma­tive 30s and into his pros­per­ous 40s.

Theft by Find­ing is not a di­ary in the con­ven­tional, con­fes­sional sense; it is not a book of dark se­crets. But it couldn’t be, not for an au­thor who has spent his ca­reer invit­ing us to laugh at the parts of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence we try hard­est to ig­nore: our fickle de­sires, our gross de­sires, the fact one day we will all die. Theft by Find­ing is sim­i­larly un­weighted by moral su­pe­ri­or­ity or squeamish­ness.

What Sedaris pro­vides in­stead are a se­ries of art­fully drawn comic vi­gnettes and scav­enged frag­ments: “re­mark­able events I have ob­served … bits of over­heard con­ver­sa­tion, and star­tling things peo­ple have told me”. There are bons mots, jokes, recipes, anec­dotes, a mul­ti­plic­ity of lists (T-shirt slo­gans, odd names from the phone book, rea­sons to keep liv­ing) and a glo­ri­ously grue­some ac­count of the di­etary habits of French spi­ders. Sedaris rou­tinely reads such snip­pets on his book tours, as lit­tle bursts of folly: March 18, 1986: One of the peo­ple I voted for this morn­ing was named Lee Botts. Her cam­paign slo­gan is HER BOT­TOM LINE IS CLEAN WA­TER. Some­one tam­pered with the sign she had in front of the school, and now it read LEE BOTTS, HER BOT­TOM IS CLEAN.

“If noth­ing else,” Sedaris re­flects, “a di­ary teaches you what you’re in­ter­ested in.” This book is a tes­ta­ment to his life­long fas­ci­na­tion with ec­cen­tric­ity, lu­nacy and vul­gar­ity. Such as on Fe­bru­ary 1, 1981: “We went to Lance’s for din­ner last night and I learned that he keeps a dead rat­tlesnake in his freezer. He found it on the high­way some­where … Half the peo­ple I know have dead an­i­mals in their freez­ers: rep­tiles, birds, mam­mals. Is that nor­mal?”

Sedaris’s fas­ci­na­tion with the grotesque di­vides read­ers, but as Os­car Wilde so per­fectly claimed: “The ugly may be beau­ti­ful, the pretty never.”

En masse, Sedaris’s re­lent­less clev­er­ness starts to grate, to feel per­for­ma­tive (April 16, 1981: “I mod­elled for Su­san’s draw­ing class this af­ter­noon and had an eerie feel­ing that ev­ery­one was star­ing at me.”)

But he doesn’t ex­pect Theft by Find­ing to be read from end to end: “It seems more like the sort of thing you might dip in and out of, like some­one of jokes.”

This glib ad­mo­ni­tion di­min­ishes the book’s im­pact. Theft by Find­ing is comic but it is not friv­o­lous. There are few writ­ers who are as able (and will­ing) to em­pa­thet­i­cally por­tray the Amer­i­can un­der­class as Sedaris. And while he largely ig­nores ma­jor world events and geopol­i­tics, the pol­i­tics of the ev­ery­day is here, with all of its mon­strous hi­lar­ity. Sedaris is an eaves­drop­per, not a com­men­ta­tor.

Sedaris also for­gets that one of the plea­sures of read­ing a di­ary is watch­ing — om­ni­sciently — as its au­thor steps into their own fu­ture. The many read­ers who love Sedaris’s work know there are nar­ra­tives to be found (a grand love story, for starters), and they will go look­ing for them. New read­ers will find them, too, but will ex­pe­ri­ence them as its au­thor did, rather than with the orac­u­lar de­light that comes with know­ing the plot.

When read from be­gin­ning to end, the first half of this book has the most mo­men­tum: the lean and des­per­ate years of piece­meal work, over­due bills and scrounged din­ners; the years when he is writ­ing with no ex­pec­ta­tion that any­one will ever read a word. In the later en­tries, once suc­cess set­tles in and Sedaris falls into “the lux­ury pit”, the book loses some­thing, its elec­tric­ity.

Sedaris knows that the price of his suc­cess is dis­tance from its source: “I’m sup­posed to be en­joy­ing this new apart­ment, but I can’t help but feel guilty for the fancy oven and brand- else’s year­book or a col­lec­tion new washer and dryer. We sit around like peo­ple in a mag­a­zine, but it’s not the sort of mag­a­zine I’d ever sub­scribe to.”

Theft by Find­ing is a heav­ily edited en­ter­prise, which is in­evitable when your source ma­te­rial runs to 156 vol­umes. Sedaris is open that he rewrote en­tries that were “clunky and un­invit­ing”, and skimmed over his bleak­est years of drug-fu­elled self-in­dul­gence (“It’s like lis­ten­ing to a crazy per­son. The gist is all you need, re­ally”).

This book is, un­apolo­get­i­cally, his ver­sion of history and him­self: An en­tirely dif­fer­ent book from the same source ma­te­rial could make me ap­pear noth­ing but evil, self­ish, gen­er­ous, or even, dare I 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.

How Sedaris does ap­pear is how he has al­ways ap­peared in print: earnest, his cyn­i­cism tem­pered by naivety, his self­ish­ness tem­pered by self-re­proach and his mor­bid cu­rios­ity left to run riot.

It was Sedaris’s di­ary that first cap­tured the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion when his ac­count of work­ing as a de­part­ment store Christ­mas elf was broad­cast on pub­lic ra­dio. And, as Theft by Find­ing at­tests, it is his di­ary that has pro­vided the raw ma­te­rial for the self-dep­re­cat­ing es­says that built his ca­reer.

Many of Sedaris’s pop­u­lar early works are here in zy­gote form. There’s a strange magic in watch­ing how he en­coun­ters and con­fig­ures these in­spi­ra­tions, par­tic­u­larly when you know what is to be­come of them, and of him. is a writer and critic.

Au­thor David Sedaris un­apolo­get­i­cally pro­vides his ver­sion of history and him­self

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.