David Sedaris' "Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002" is delightful, hilarious and a very easy read. Like all of Sedaris' humor, however, every third or fourth joke in the book hides a barb. Sedaris will insert a deeply unsettling fact about his family amid an essay full of quirky humor, hoping that the reader is too busy laughing to notice. It's a little hard NOT to notice though. "Wait a second, did he just say that his sister committed suicide?" "Wait, did he imply that his neighbor's 6-year-old daughter is severely neglected and he's too mentally ill to do something about it?" "Wait, did his youngest sister just have a miscarriage and nearly bleed to death and then was kicked out of her mother's house two weeks later because the sister was still on drugs?" It often feels like Sedaris wants to make us laugh by telling stories about his family.... but his family has such horrifying problems that it's difficult for Sedaris to gloss over the sadness in order to bring the funny. Sedaris is better at being consistently funny than his sister Amy Sedaris though. Amy Sedaris' humor seems to barely contain a frightening insanity. Every time I see Amy Sedaris on TV, I'm always afraid that she's about to grab a knife and slit open her own throat, cackling in terrifying glee as she chokes on her own blood. No seriously, Amy Sedaris scares the shit out of me.
David Sedaris is very honest that his diaries from 1977-2002 is heavily edited, and understandably so. He describes the years between 1977 and 1983 as "the bleakest. I was writing my diaries by hand then. The letters were small and, fueled by meth, a typical entry would go on for pages- solid walls of words and every last one of them complete bullshit." Names have been disguised and content has been streamlined for clarity and entertainment. At times Sedaris' edits are a little clangingly obvious. One entry from October 5th 1997 has Sedaris complaining about having to sit through "another endless preview for 'Titanic.' Who do they think is going to see that movie?" Eyeroll. Clearly that last sentence was added on by 2017 David Sedaris for ironic effect. More intriguing is when mid-eighties David Sedaris comments on pop culture obsessions that we have now forgotten. One entry from September 28th, 1986 has this tasteless joke: "Q: How did they know Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? A: They found her Head & Shoulders on the beach." I had to do a quick "Bing" search. Christa McAuliffe was the teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. Apparently they were able to recover enough of her remains to bury her in her home town.
David Sedaris' diary entries are mostly a catalogue of his observations of the slightly quirky habits of everyday humans. "T.W.'s best hunting dog just died. He has her kidneys and her spleen in a jar in the front seat of his truck. After work he planned to take them to the vet." from 1981 is a typical entry. Another typical entry from 1990 is "Dad's been a real terror lately.... (H)e yelled at me for picking a meatball with my fingers. It was on a dish in the refrigerator and he accused me of touching a lot of them before deciding on the largest. I think he worries that I'm spreading AIDS." It really is unbearably sad that David Sedaris' father thinks Sedaris has a fatal disease and instead of being worried about his son, Sedaris' father only frets about catching the disease himself. David Sedaris' relationship with his father, like his sister Tiffany's mental health, is one of those aching, bleeding wounds that seep through the humor that David Sedaris uses as wound packing.
Despite the tang of inescapable sadness that bleeds through regularly in David Sedaris' humor, I have to admit that "Theft by Finding" is mostly light, hilarious reading. You also get to track Sedaris' path from mentally ill drug addict who is borderline homeless to a wealthy writer. It did not happen overnight. Sedaris started out being a mediocre artist who spent his evenings smoking crack and ignoring the domestic abuse going on in the neighboring apartments. He relied on financial help from his parents and occasionally construction jobs. In the nineties Sedaris got a humiliating job as an elf for a mall Santa during the holiday season. He wrote an essay about the experience, and it turned into a surprising success. Sedaris was offered a book deal and wrote "Barrel Fever." Suddenly Sedaris was getting offers from agents. He was being called by "The New Yorker" and asked for interviews by NPR. The rest is history. Sedaris (over a period of years, it must be noted) got sober, got a boyfriend, and became a well-known writer and humorist. The last few years of Sedaris' diaries are smooth sailing despite the fact that he overlaps with 9/11 at that time. Sedaris' life is stable and happy and his less-jagged humor reflects that. In an entry from 2002 Sedaris writes "We've gotten ourselves a mortgage broker named Marcus Paisley, a man we obviously chose for his name. Hugh spoke to him yesterday morning and spent the rest of the day imagining future calls. "I'm starting to see a pattern here, Paisley, and I don't like it." It's a silly joke, yes, but it's a happy silly joke. It's a Dad joke. It's an indicator of the long road from the late seventies meth-fueled diary entries from David Sedaris' youth. And David Sedaris lived happily ever after.