Fiascos and hilarity abound in ‘My Heart is an Idiot,’ Davy Rothbart’s collection of essays about life and love

March 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 22, 2017

Davy Rothbart, the Michigan-born writer and magazine editor, is like most people: Get some drink into him and he tends to develops the gift of gab. Also like most people, inebriation tends to lower Rothbart’s inhibitions and impair his judgments.

What sets Rothbart apart is his knack for getting into hilarious misadventures — often but not aways with a helpful nudge from spirits — and his ability to spin them into enjoyable stories. Happily for readers, he’s assembled some of his wackiest hijinks in My Heart is an Idiot, a 2012 collection of essays that documents some of his strangest exploits and describes some of the people he’s met during his various jaunts.

The book, which functions as a sort of haphazard memoir, begins with an amusing but largely ordinary childhood reminiscence. “Bigger and Deafer” details the mischief Rothbart and his brothers got into when Davy was inspired to mislead his deaf mother about the phone conversations for which they were serving as intermediaries. The best part about the story is the twists that take place on its final page.

The collection hits its stride in the second essay, “Human Snowball,” which describes the events of Valentine’s Day in 2000, when Rothbart took a long bus trip to Buffalo, completely unannounced, to visit a young college student from his hometown whom he’d been romancing. Over the course of a few hours on a cold February night, Rothbart accumulates an unlikely collection of new friends and improbable allies. The evening, which began unpromisingly, ends in glorious fashion.

Like “Human Snowball,” many of the tales in My Heart is an Idiot deal in some fashion with Rothbart’s yearning for romantic connection. In three of them, “What are You Wearing?,” “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall” and “Shade,” the writer falls in love — or at least convinces himself that he has — almost exclusively through a series of phone conversations.

The latter two of these stories involve some kind of long-standing quest. In “Ninety-Nine Bottles,” Rothbart’s goal is to wreak vengeance upon a fraudster who preys on wanna-be writers hungry for acknowledgment; in “Shade,” it’s to realize a long-held dream of (a) finding love and (b) visiting a small New Mexico town named Deming with (c) a woman who resembles a character in the 1992 movie Gas, Food, Lodging, which was filmed in Deming. In classic Rothbartian fashion, each odyssey culminates in a strange alcohol-fueled evening. Given Rothbart’s devil-may-care approach to major life endeavors, it seems fitting that neither episode entirely fulfills all of the author’s goals.

A number of Rothbart’s journeys were spurred at least in part by his editing of Foundan annual publication of “discarded notes, letters, fliers, photos and other ephemera.” The magazine led to a book and, in 2004, a book tour, moments of which are strung through many of the essays in My Heart is an Idiot. One tale, a version of which the author performed in a 2006 episode of the radio anthology This American Life, describes a few highlights — or are they lowlights — of the tour. This essay climaxes with Rothbart’s reading, live on air, a mash note penned by a pompous, possibly inebriated and definitely infuriated TV anchor. (That six-minute radio segment, which was recorded before a live audience, is definitely worth a listen.)

Two of the stories deal with the inconvenient aftermath’s of Rothbart’s exuberance. In “Naked in New York,” the author recounts waking up on a Manhattan park bench with nothing but his socks. In this case, New Yorkers’ indifference to strangers in need proves to be both a blessing and a curse; Rothbart also finds that being willing to walk long distances and having a discarded pizza box handy are very helpful in handling such a situation.

That short tale is followed by a longer one, “Tarantula,” in which Rothbart discovers a corpse in the aftermath of a illicit one-night stand on Thanksgiving eve. (He has a girlfriend; his trysting partner is engaged.) “Tarantula” ends on a disconcerting note as Rothbart expresses his love to the girlfriend he’d cheated on just two nights before.

While the author glides over many of the implications of his two-faed behavior in that episode, he is frequently aware of and willing to expose his foibles and failings. For instance, see the title of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall,” which verges on being quite literal. Or take this passage, from “Human Snowball,” which also displays Rothbart’s gift for connecting mundane quotidian thoughts and experiences to his quest for meaning:

[Chris] pumped up the Green Day song on the radio, zoomed through side streets to the on-ramp for an expressway, and looped the Explorer back toward the lights of downtown, slapping the steering wheel along to the music. Vernon tore off a few scratch [lottery] tickets for himself, passed me the rest of the roll, and we both went to work.

Each losing ticket I scratched out socked me a little blow to the heart. I couldn’t help but feel that trying to find the right girl was like trying to get rich playing the lottery — both were games for suckers. And why didn’t scratch cards just have a single box that told you if you’d won or not? Why the slow build, all the teasing hoopla of Tic-Tac-Toe game boards and Wheels of Fortune? You kept thinking you were getting close and then, once again: Loser. All of the unanswered questions made my head hurt: Had I blown things by coming to Buffalo and putting unfair pressure on Lauren Hill? Should I have simply come on any day other than Valentine’s Day? Had she meant all of the things she’d said in her letters? Some of it? None of it? And what would be the best way to salvage the night when I went back to the bar? (Because, face it, I was headed back there later whether she called me or not.) A small heap of losing tickets gathered at my feet.

Rothbart also excels at capturing the excitement of falling in love with, flirting with or sometimes just seeing an attractive woman. That’s part of the charm of “Canada or Bust,” in which he impulsively decides to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco with a potential girlfriend and a wannabe DJ that he meets outside a club where he’s just had a few drinks with professional basketball player Pau Gasol; “Southwest,” wherein the author chats up his beautiful, quiet fellow passenger on an airplane flight; “Tessa,” which describes a drunken makeup session that he had in a Drexel University frat house with his older brother’s roommate’s girlfriend; and the book’s final story, “Ain’t that America?,” in which Rothbart runs out of gas while road-tripping in a Southern California desert with a beautiful, accomplished young Englishwoman.

Three of the essays belong to an entirely different category and describe Rothbart’s relationships with men whom he happens to encounter during his journeys. In “The 8th of November,” he’s handed a war journal written by a Vietnam veteran and becomes friends with him. “How I Got These Boots” involves similar serendipity; in this tale, Rothbart encounters a hitchhiker from Massachusetts who’s on the cusp of realizing a lifelong dream of visiting the Grand Canyon. Those tales are short, but “The Strongest Man in the World” — the title refers to a band that got its name from an Ibsen quote — is a lengthy exploration of Rothbart’s friendship with a prison inmate. Byron Case, a Found magazine reader, was sentenced to life for the murder of a friend, but Rothbart and others harbor doubts about his conviction.

Taken as a whole, the essays in My Heart is an Idiot cover a big swath of the peripatetic author’s life. I think his experiences will resonate with anyone who is, or ever has been, young and confused about romance and other worldly matters.

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