Modern literary fiction is so often told from an immersive first person perspective that sometimes the line between the classic essayist and the contemporary novelist disappears.
Found Magazine originator and frequent “This American Life” contributor Davy Rothbart’s new book, the brilliantly titled My Heart Is an Idiot, collects 16 essays that read like early Jack Kerouac, if you substituted Charlie Parker for Dr. Dre. Rothbart is boozily looking for love in all the wrong places, hitch-hiking, sleeping on couches in cities across America, dreaming of becoming a writer and romanticizing nearly everything in sight, often leaving him bereft.
One of the most stunning things about this collection is the frank, often brutal, honesty on display. Rothbart the essayist is not afraid to let his readers know about his less attractive qualities in vivid detail: from his general aimlessness and admitted romantic incompetence to copping to obstructing a potential murder case. It’s a tightrope act to tell so many stories without a clearly likeable protagonist, but by freely sharing his most unattractive qualities, the author bulldozes the fourth wall and invites his readers into some of the darkest and most entertaining corners of the human brain.
The opener, “Bigger and Deafer,” is a dark comedy where Rothbart writes about growing up with a deaf mother and the fun he and his brothers had at her expense. Little Davy, who would take mom’s phone calls and translate them into sign language, soon realized he could sign anything he pleased, a fact which helped get him everything from extra Soft Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies, to parent-free sleepovers, to an unlimited supply of get out of jail free cards at school.
In “Human Snowball,” the author takes a bus from Detroit to Buffalo to surprise a would-be girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, only to become entangled in a stranger-than-fiction single-night odyssey that includes a car thief, a 110-year-old man and his estranged granddaughter, her two tenants and a bewildered Chinese family. By the end of the yarn, a job and a small business have been rescued, a young girl has miraculously gotten into college, and everyone has (literally) won the lottery. The entire oddball cast then whoops it up in a dive bar, and Rothbart – briefly – gets the girl.
“Shade” reveals a life-long obsession with, of all things, Faruza Balk’s character in Gas Food Lodging, and the litany of relationships Rothbart has sabotaged in his fevered devotion.
The overly-graphic “99 Bottles of Pee on the Wall” recalls a leg injury that forced Rothbart into bed for months and the empty bottles he turned into portable urinals. When the author discovers a series of scam literary contests online perpetrated by the same man, he decides to exact revenge on the mysterious figure. After falling in love with one of the victims during a series of phone conversations, Rothbart travels to New York City to meet her and plan a pee-bottle sneak attack. Predictably, he overplays his hand with the girl and sets off on his own to corner the villain and dump several bottles of months-old urine over his head. Wackiness ensures.
When Rothbart admits to finding a dead body in a swimming pool in “Tarantula,” and tampering with the grizzly evidence, it’s less shocking than par for the course. After a series of drunken nights in a Michigan bar, he goes home with the bartender. The pair – both of whom were dating other people – have a wild night that might make 50 Shades fans blush. After waking up a few hours later, Rothbart stumbles downstairs, grabs a beer from the fridge, and wanders outside for a little fresh air. Spotting a neglected pool, he begins mindlessly fishing out objects (leaves, a bicycle) until he finds an obviously lifeless body, pulls it to dry land, and begins performing CPR and screaming at it. When he runs upstairs to tell the passed-out bartender, she convinces him to flee the scene. Rothbart obliges, shoving the body back in the pool and dashing away just as sirens begin to sound in the distance.
Nearly every story moves along at a rapid-fire pace, combining dreary settings, fragile characters and fantastical circumstances in an intoxicating mix.
Two essays near the end add weight to the collection, including “New York, New York,” a powerful and unpretentious remembrance of the chaos the country was spun into just after 9/11. The day after the Twin Towers fall, Rothbart grabs his high-tech This American Life-audio equipment and heads to the city with a journalist’s curiosity. On the way, he records the first-hand stories of nearly everyone he meets on a winding bus trip, unearthing fresh and meaningful bits of pain, anger, grief and laughter in equal doses.
In “The Strongest Man in the World,” Rothbart becomes fascinated with Bryon Case, a young man who was imprisoned following a controversial murder trial which produced no hard evidence, yet still sent a teenager to jail for life. Befriending Case and studying the situation with great interest, Rothbart seems to be pleading with his readers to do the same, and – just maybe – find the overlooked detail that could set him free.
The book winds up back on the road in the dreamy, romantic “Ain’t That America,” where Rothbart finally manages to meet a girl and not screw everything up completely. It’s a satisfying end to a collection that rarely misses a beat in its honest, heartfelt, funny and unheroic remembrances of things past. Who needs fiction when the truth is this bizarrely engaging?