Sep 5 2012

My Heart is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart

Cara Spitalewitz

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According to the website of Found magazine, which was started by Davy Rothbart in 2001, the publication accepts "anything that gives a glimpse into someone else's life." The only condition is that the material has been, well, found—in the street, in an old book, on the windshield of a car, wherever. The result is a hodge-podge of to-do lists, old photographs, love letters, notes of apology, and children's homework assignments. Ordinary as they may be, the finds tend to be unintentionally hilarious or poignant, and often both.

In his new collection of essays, Rothbart, who is best known as a contributor to This American Life, is at work on a similar project: collecting people or experiences that would otherwise be ignored. For him, everyday situations have a way of alchemizing into adventures: In one piece, Rothbart cheats on his girlfriend, and, in a characteristically improbable yet perfect twist, he walks outside to find a dead man in her swimming pool.

The story is so entertaining that it is easy to forget Rothbart has done anything to make himself less likeable. He is a stubbornly unassuming, sincere narrator; the kind of guy who freely admits to collecting ninety-nine bottles of his urine while laid up with a broken ankle, who leaves a love note (of sorts) for the girl behind the counter at a roadside Subway, who drives a graying hitchhiker to the Grand Canyon to help him achieve his lifelong dream.

It can be hard to remember, but it wasn't that long ago—just a little over a decade—that glimpses into other people's lives, like those provided by Found and Rothbart's essays, were novel. These days, social media provide us with far more glimpses than we care to see. As Rothbart points out in an essay about a bus trip he took from Michigan to New York in the wake of the September 11 attacks, times have changed: "these days…I would've gathered a slew of email addresses and made a dozen new Facebook friends. But that was another time, before the souls we crossed paths with could be collected like passport stamps."

For many of his readers, this book will evoke a sense of that not-too-distant past. There are radios and CD players blasting "What It's Like" by Everlast, great American highways, and phone sex on a hotel landline. It's a love letter to the late '90s, and throughout the book, Rothbart seems wistful for a time when it was more difficult to keep hold of our transient connections. In the book's most charming essay, he finds himself crammed into an SUV with eight other people, most of whom he'd just met. It's a ragtag bunch, and in a single night, they experience the ups and downs of a winning Lotto ticket, a stolen car, a college acceptance, and a 110th birthday. "If there's ever been a happier moment in my life," Rothbart says of the adventure, "I can't remember it."

Prose like this can read as heavy-handed, and Rothbart is a bit too free with the sweeping pronouncements about love and hope. His strength is storytelling; he is less a literary essayist than a born raconteur, someone you'd want to share a beer with at a dive bar. If the pieces in My Heart Is an Idiot were read aloud, their humor and honesty would make it easier to gloss over some of the clumsier moments.

The energy and charisma of Rothbart's voice can't be denied. And the connections he writes about feel more substantial and human than what we often encounter today. When a Vietnam war journal was submitted to his magazine, he tracked down the owner and was still in touch with him a decade later; when he received fan mail from a prisoner, Rothbart went to visit him half a dozen times.

Fleeting or not, each encounter in the book seems to find a way into Rothbart's heart. When a gust from a passing subway train grabs the phone number of a woman he met on the Greyhound after September 11, he doesn't take it lightly: "It made me sad to imagine what she might make of the fact that I never called, if she might believe that our friendship had meant nothing to me, or was only temporary, when the truth is that Laquisha sticks with me and matters to me to this day." It's not subtle, but you believe him.

Cara Spitalewitz is a freelance writer based in New York.

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