Everyone I know loves David Sedaris, but I have been a holdout. Oh, David Sedaris, I’d say dismissively, when asked. Yeah, he’s funny and all, but he makes things up and says they’re true.
This doesn’t bother everyone, apparently, but it bothers me.
But now I have read the first volume of his diaries (“Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002”) and wouldn’t you know, now I love him, too. This book is flat-out mesmerizing.
The early years, before success, are the most interesting. Sedaris works as an apple picker, a handyman, a painter, a house cleaner. He moves to Chicago, goes to college, lives in a terrible neighborhood, begins to teach, rides his bike everywhere, drinks too much.
We get poignant glimpses of his sister Tiffany, who clearly felt like an outsider in the family (and who committed suicide in 2013). “She left herself out of a lot this Christmas,” Sedaris writes in 1987. “Every night has ended with Amy, Gretchen, Paul and me sitting on one bed or another and laughing until four in the morning.”
Sedaris writes openly of his poverty, his insecurities, his substance abuse. (“I’m pretty sure I’ve been drunk every night for the past eighteen years,” he writes in 1999, as he decides to get sober.) But most of his entries are observations of others, often just random people he meets on the street. “I was never one to write about my feelings,” he says, “in part because they weren’t that interesting. … If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you are interested in.”
And what Sedaris is interested in is oddballs. Everyone he meets is quirky: the other customers at the IHOP, the fighting neighbors, the panhandlers, the angry men on buses, the weird women in laundromats, the one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard.
Sedaris does not judge. His persona is that of a man with a good heart, and mostly he just seems fascinated by all the weird things that people say and do. (The second half of the book, where he becomes famous and moves to France, is less interesting, more cranky and self-absorbed.)
This is not to say that the book is without problems. My original complaint about Sedaris’ veracity still holds: He has made a name for himself writing essays about his life — essays that are clearly exaggerated, embroidered and embellished — and he calls them “memoir.” This makes me crazy. Memoir is nonfiction. Deliberately changing facts turns nonfiction into fiction. But hardly anyone else seems to care. Sedaris makes us laugh, and people are willing to overlook a lot for that.
These diary entries, Sedaris tells us right at the beginning, have been altered. Names have been changed, physical descriptions tweaked, the 156 volumes edited down so tightly that many entries are nothing more than a pithy paragraph. He has rewritten entries that were unclear, or “when the writing was clunky and uninviting.”
This is a problematic thing to do with a diary. We read the letters and journals of writers in order to get a glimpse at the person behind the words and to observe the evolution of their craft. What was their life like? What events influenced them? How did their writing change over the years?
With a diary as heavily edited and rewritten as this one, there is no way to know how much to believe. Did Sedaris really write this eloquently and pithily back in 1977, or did he rewrite everything last year? Did all of these people really do and say all of these oddball things? Did the dwarf really have only one arm, and was he really a dwarf?
If a diary has been rewritten, then what are we to learn?
In this case, I fear, not much. This is not a book for scholars of Sedaris, but for fans. They will love the glimpses into his work as a SantaLand elf (here written about in a much more muted way than in his breakout essay), and his lessons with an overwrought French teacher (who finds her way into the essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day”). Save the unedited 156 volumes for the academics. If this book is not the literal truth, well, at least he makes us laugh. For many readers, that will be enough.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. Twitter: @StribBooks. facebook.com/startribunebooks
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
By: David Sedaris.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 528 pages, $28.
Event: With Ariel Levy, 7 p.m. June 17, Common Good Books. Tickets $28, includes copy of book. Online only: http://bit.ly/2rxaLzB