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Review: Davy Rothbart tells it true in 'My Heart Is an Idiot'

Davy Rothbart's misadventures in romance and on the road make for lively stories in the essay collection 'My Heart Is an Idiot.'

By August Brown, Los Angeles Times

September 16, 2012

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My Heart Is an Idiot
Essays

Davy Rothbart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 320 pp, $26


The love of Davy Rothbart's life is a character from Allison Anders' 1992 film "Gas Food Lodging." Shade, played by Fairuza Balk, is the wan and ephemerally beautiful daughter of a New Mexico trailer park waitress. From the day Rothbart — the editor of Found magazine and a "This American Life" favorite — first saw the film, he's fallen only for women with slivers of Shade to them: wraithlike girls who are often more fiction than fact.

"In the weeks and months that followed, my desire for her dominated my being.... It's been seventeen years since I came out of that theater, and I still compare every girl I meet to Shade," he writes in "Shade," one of the centerpiece stories in his memoir-heavy essay collection "My Heart Is an Idiot."

If "Being an Incorrigible Wimpster" was an illness in the Diagnostic Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, this movie crush would be a good clinical definition for it. In "My Heart Is an Idiot," which follows his wanderlusty misadventures across America, Rothbart is a manic pixie beta male whose foibles would be a five-alarm warning siren off the page.

Deep-sixing a sweet girlfriend for insufficiently evoking a character from a favorite movie? Deploying the master-stroke pickup line of asking a new crush to dump a bottle of his own urine on a shared publishing world foe? One must applaud his candor, but the guy makes the self-flagellating singer-songwriter Conor Oberst look like a model of square-jawed reserve.

And yet the picaresque "My Heart Is an Idiot" is somehow still a popcorn-munching romp through the psyche of today's twitchy, self-aware clever boys. There is no more lambasted target here than Rothbart himself, and in the end, you do kind of root for him to find his Shade.

Rothbart isn't so much a deeply considered essayist as he is a pure storyteller, and after years of gallivanting across the states in cheap vans on low-octane book tours, he's got a deep quiver of them. From a heartfelt phone-sex relationship in "What are You Wearing" to the street-kid hitchhiking survey of "Canada or Bust," Rothbart put in the highway miles to back up a road-trippy relationship memoir. He's got a magpie knack for absurdist quote-collecting (a friend's art teacher, on 9/11: "We can all stop what we're doing and rush out of here and join the madness of the world … or we can stay right here for the next hour and a half and create art!"), even if he's prone to improbable metaphors like describing a road kill elk carcass as weighing as much as "a coffin full of ice."

The real strength of "My Heart" is the punky, shaggy-dog quality of his yarn-spinning. A trip to pursue a futile teenage crush in "Human Snowball" ends with him toasting whiskey shots to a vagabond gang of car thieves and centenarian Greyhound fellow-travelers. "99 Bottles of Pee on the Wall" is "Dirty Harry" for passive-aggressive slobs: hung up from a foot injury, he mails bottles of pee to a book-contest scammer before pursuing him all the way to New York in a drolly anticlimactic showdown.

Some heavier stories, like "The 8th of November," about Rothbart's attempt to return a diary to a soldier with PTSD, duck out after just a few pages — and it's probably no coincidence that this happens when the topics turn serious and non-Rothbart-centric (though two longer, graceful takes on trying to document the aftermath of 9/11 and his friend's imprisonment are more fully realized). And one imagines that his ex-girlfriends might have competing versions of Rothbart's examinations of his own cheating heart. In "Tarantula," when he describes the flame he betrayed as "sweet, dazzlingly beautiful and sparklingly bright," it almost comes off as sociopathically apologetic.

But as a tale-teller, he's sociopathic in a good way. Rothbart amplifies his failings in ways that keep them recognizable yet make them arresting as stories. "My Heart" is a book of small but keen observations, and it's refreshing to see a young male writer owning up to his own neediness. If Rothbart truly believes that "all of life's urgent pursuits are rendered meaningless once they're in your grasp," then this is a book about grasping the meaning of those young, urgent feelings.

august.brown@latimes.com