Davy Rothbart is a likeable guy. He’s passionate, tolerant, down for whatever. Throughout his new collection of essays, My Heart Is An Idiot, Rothbart roams the land, searching for love, sex, experience, feeling, and connection. The collection is a mixture of bar tales, oddities, long-form personal essays, and investigative journalism. The very best pieces are a rambling combination of all these genres that capture a gothic America inhabited by lost, lonely people. The landscapes are often blighted—whether they are frozen post-Industrial cities or vast deserts. Rental cars get a lot of mileage. There is something freeing about a rental car, the modern-day rented mule, and impromptu trips cross-country are easier to embark on when you don’t need to worry about repairs. But hearts, unfortunately, require long-term maintenance. They can be jerked around and shot through, but too many bad decisions and rough roads will leave it hard, jaded, and untrusting. Thankfully, Rothbart’s idiotic heart is more resilient than most, and he throws the thing against the wall time after time for our amusement. There is something both maddening and reassuring about this self-abuse. You shake your head in simultaneous exasperation and recognition. His best tales involve the reader in a genuine emotional moment, a roadside epiphany or unearthed motivation, rather than the mere yearning for one. But gradually, the stories grow from youthful misadventures to something darker, stranger and more meaningful.
“Bigger and Deafer,” the clunky and obnoxious opening essay about childish sadism and growing up with a deaf mother, isn’t shocking or funny. But it is deeply personal, and demonstrates from the beginning how uninterested the writer is in anything other than the rawest of emotions. It also offers a rare glimpse of Rothbart’s immediate family. The rest of the collection deals with his extended family—the Greyhound passengers, street kids, truckers, and barflies that make up America.
For this reader, the collection truly begins with the second piece, “Human Snowball.” There is a jangled, caffeinated quality to the prose reminiscent of road-trip conversations. The writing is lyrical, though at times you may feel as if you’ve heard the song before. “Human Snowball” introduces a few Rothbart tropes: a long-distance relationship of uncertain status, a colorful cast of auxiliary characters, small triumphs amid an economically depressed and marginalized community, alcohol abuse, cheery criminality. Wading through the muck is the Rothbartian hero: a man who makes things work, who stretches his luck to the breaking point, who puts others first and is rewarded for this sacrifice with a fleeting good feeling. As Rothbart’s motley crew veers between several near-disasters, his goals and methods begin to come into focus. They’re so crazy they just might work.
In “What Are You Wearing?” Rothbart engages in phone sex with a deceitful stranger over a painfully long stretch of time. When the ruse is finally revealed he is shockingly calm. They share a drink at an Applebee’s and go their separate ways with no ill will. I was disappointed by this ending, but unsure of what I wanted in its place. Violence? Some sort of breakdown or comeuppance? Instead Rothbart gets right back on the horse, connecting with strangers and chugging across the country to see if they are the real thing. He is brave, largely unflappable. He is able to shrug off disaster and plow forwards, though he is not immune to introspection.
Rothbart switches keys in “The 8th of November,” an essay that, like many in this collection, is a meditation on an item discovered in the course of editing Found Magazine. This one concerns a veteran’s wartime journal, which is of course a weightier document than a funny grocery list or Dear John letter. Rothbart recognizes its significance and sets about trying to return the diary. This is the type of potentially quixotic good deed he often undertakes. At first it’s a bit startling. Who gets involved in this sort of thing? But this is also where his chops as a journalist first make their appearance. He finds the diarist, Jim, a charming and damaged man, and they watch football together at Jim’s rooming house. The piece is shorter and more restrained, no doubt out of respect for Jim’s plight, but the voice and its enthusiasm still shine through.
Not all of his adventures are so mature. In “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Piss on the Wall,” he mails urine to an admittedly deserving villain. Most of the trademarks of Rothbartian drama are here: rambling asides, lost love, the possibility of long-distance connection, a confrontation, but the overall conceit—hosing some idiot in piss—is so silly and distracting that it drowns out these more serious aspects. “Ninety-Nine Bottles” does feature the reappearance of his father, who is sadly implicated in the villain’s evil schemes.
Unsurprisingly, often Rothbart meets other Rothbartian heroes while on the road. “How I Got These Boots” details one such serendipitous occurrence. These strangers revel in the wide-open spaces of America while searching for something long missing. They share their stories. In this case, a man named John is making his way to the Grand Canyon. Rothbart tells John about his own overlapping journey: “I told him about my wrecked heart, the girlfriend who’d left me and moved to Scotland, how I hadn’t dated or kissed another girl in two years. And now the girl I’d flown to Arizona to see—captain of the Phoenix Suns dance team—had let me down; when I’d arrived, she’d told me about her new boyfriend, an NFL punter. It was actually the punter who’d suggested I check out the Grand Canyon.”
“Shade” serves as a centerpiece of the collection. It best encapsulates Rothbart’s desires and fears and the cultural milieu that informs them. “Shade” is also our first trip into true darkness. There is real heartbreak, near-death experiences, love and death, beauty and gore. Rothbart risks it all, including the reader’s sympathies. Rothbart is in love with a girl named Shade. You might know her. She is a fictional character in Alison Wenders’s film Gas, Food, Lodging. As Rothbart explains: “Although it was tempting, I never confused Shade with the actress who played her, Fairuza Balk. I was sure Fairuza Balk was wondrous in her own right, but it was Shade who was my soulmate, it was Shade whom I’d scour the planet to find. Shade was tough, tender, otherworldly, filled with a bewitching sadness. Her desolate beauty matched the New Mexico landscape, and I dreamed of visiting her town and looking for her there.”
There is, among other things, a Freudian connection: “In the movie, Shade falls in love with a Mexican boy whose mother is deaf, and I figured my chances with her were increased, since my mom was deaf, too.”
His relentless search for Shade and the various and inevitable disappointments that follow frame the essay. Rothbart is not blind to the difficulties inherent to the task. “The problem, friends said, was with my ferocious, unshakable loyalty to the mystical idea of Shade. But this devotion, no matter how unproductive, unhealthy, or stark raving mad, felt spiritual and pure, and despite my loneliness I had little incentive to ditch something that had become so meaningful to me.”
It also features some of Rothbart’s wittiest and most evocative writing. The mother of a potential Shade “had the gaunt, wrinkled look of a woman who’d lived a hard life in the desert and had disappointment on speed-dial.” He shrewdly unpacks a love interest’s toxic friendship without dismissing its benefits. There is a dead elk. Bubba Sparxx makes a cameo. “Shade” often feels like fiction. This is not because I doubt its truthfulness, but because it blends fantasy, reality, and celebrity into a complex narrative that is epic in both length and scope. It slams the collection into a growling fourth gear.
In “Canada or Bust,” there are hot girls, rock stars, and Hollywood glamour, and while this breaks up the collection’s cultural landscape, this spur-of-the-moment stuff can become exhausting if there isn’t enough to sustain the story. You get weary and wonder, Doesn’t anyone ever stay in one place anymore?
Thankfully, in “Tarantula,” Rothbart heads home. “Tarantula” is a Gothic and nearly supernatural tale of longing, rough sex, infidelity and death, set amid the dissolving lives of childhood ghosts. The Rothbartian hero in this piece is mournful, hedonistic, slipping. Lost in a less literal sense. We have come to rely on his wacky freedom, his good-natured tenacity, but this is something closer to what he would look like without these admirable qualities. “Tarantula” is a sobering look in an old mirror, a woozy yet exacting post-mortem. It transcends the memoir-essay genre by being both completely confessional and at the mercy of larger, unexplained forces. As Rothbart writes, “I felt alive and alert and at the edge of a mystery.”
“Tarantula” investigates Rothbart’s true motivations and the contradictions at the center of his colorful personality—both the heart and the idiot—in a more concrete way than even “Shade.” He writes, “I wanted badly to be a good boyfriend, not just good but faithful; at the same time, I wanted to live, and this, I felt—buzzed, downing a beer in the woods somewhere, pelted by falling acorns and pine cones, my loose dick tingling, thinking on the past, and hating myself a little but not too, too much, while owls hooted in the night—this, I felt, was living.”
If My Heart Is An Idiot has a thesis statement, that’s it right there. No matter where else this collection roams—from a Manhattan-bound Greyhound in the days immediately following 9/11 to the bedroom of a death row inmate to Joshua Tree—“Tarantula” cuts the deepest. It is the result of a talented journalist training an unflinching eye on his own worst impulses. When Rothbart settles down and turns inward, the results are riveting. Though, if “Tarantula” is any indication, it’s no surprise that he prefers the mysteries of the road.
Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut. Visit him at www.mikeymcgrath.com.