David Sedaris has become a legend when it comes to creative nonfiction. Whenever someone hopes to be an essayist, his name usually pops up as an inspiration – it’s almost a cliche now. What sets him apart from his myriad of followers and imitators is his ability to mine deadpan humor and comedy from some of the most tragic and unfortunate circumstances. His collections of essays – including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day – have become canonical standards for the genre, and “The Santaland Diaries” has become a holiday classic.
With this in mind, I approached his latest, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977 – 2002) with enthusiasm. Though many of the stories and circumstances will be familiar with those who’ve read Sedaris’ body of work, his astute observations, even in the truncated and terse form of a diary entry, still find the funny in either mundane or disturbing situations. It’s also neat to stroll through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and the 200s with Sedaris as he documents historical and cultural moments and milestones with the immediacy of experience them as they happen. Some of it is heartbreaking or chilling, as he recounts, almost off-handedly in 1981 that a new cancer was discovered that only affected gay men; or his reaction and grief in watching the Twin Towers fall while in Paris on September 12, 2001.
Other times, it’s neat to see Sedaris struggle and work, while slowly gaining a reputation as a comedic writer. It’s especially gratifying to read about his success, as they come hard earned. And the genesis of his two most notable essays, the aforementioned “Santaland Diaires” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day” are documented in the collection, and provide hearty laugh-out-loud moments. We also get the courtship of Sedaris and his partner Hugh, as well as the gradual ascendance of his sister Amy’s comedy career as well.
It’s hard to tell if any of these stories have been sweetened for publication. But really, it doesn’t matter, because it’s still a lot of fun to read these pithy, funny, and witty observations from a guy who has been responsible for some of the funniest work in the English language for the last twenty years.