BOOK REVIEW: My Heart Is An Idiot

Posted by: Necci – Sep 19, 2012


My Heart Is An Idiot, by Davy Rothbart
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Davy Rothbart, the creator and editor of Found Magazine--who, by the way, will be bringing his Found Magazine 10th Anniversary Tour to Richmond this Sunday (more on that below)--is not all that well known for his writing. Rather than his own work, his magazine publishes interesting notes, writings, and objects that Rothbart and his readers find on the ground or in the trash over the course of their daily lives. It's an unexpected and fascinating look into isolated moments from people's lives, and moves from hilarious to heartbreaking and back from one page to the next. And actually, the same thing could be said about Rothbart's new essay collection, My Heart Is An Idiot. While these stories are all drawn from Rothbart's own life, rather than those of random strangers, they do as excellent a job of summing up those times when things get most bizarre, most dangerous, most real--and communicating all of the feelings that go along with those moments, from enjoyable amusement to crushing heartbreak and raw terror.

At the beginning of his book, Rothbart feels like a gregarious stranger at the end of a bar, telling you stories from his life with such colorful wit and unlikely plotlines that even as you're laughing, there's a part of you thinking, "Is he bullshitting me right now?" Indeed, there's a brief note on the back of the title page that indicates the changing of some details--names, locations, even bits of dialogue--to avoid incrimination or even to make the stories better. However, this note assures you that everything you're reading pretty much happened the way Rothbart says it did. And really, why quibble? The guy's a great storyteller, and especially in the earlier stories, has some pretty wild things to relate. As the book's title indicates, a lot of these stories have to do with misadventures in love--and some of Rothbart's misadventures are downright epic in scope. In "Human Snowball," he starts off by taking a Greyhound to another state to surprise a potential love interest by showing up unannounced at her door. You think you know exactly how this is going to fall apart, but things break in a completely different way that is just as uncomfortably hilarious but far less predictable than you'd expect. In "99 Bottles Of Pee On The Wall," a loose, rambling narrative connects seemingly unrelated incidents involving convalescence from an injury, an internet scammer, and multiple potential love interests. This tale features twists and turns straight out of a Hitchcock movie, but remains hilarious throughout.

As the book progresses, things become more serious--but there's always the potential for something random and hilarious to disrupt the narrative. In one tale of illicit drunken lovemaking, it's all fun and games until a dead body shows up. At another point, a heartwrenching breakup narrative is suddenly derailed, almost literally, by an elk, which arrives in the form of a corpse blocking one side of a four-lane highway. "New York, New York," Rothbart's tale of the days immediately after 9/11, takes a subject which by now, let's face it, has been done to death, and injects it with freshness and renewed emotion by focusing on little-discussed aspects of that harrowing time. The most powerful essay in this entire book comes near the end, when Rothbart goes into detail about the case of a friend of his who is currently behind bars for a murder that he may not have committed. Even people discussed in this essay who at first seem unsympathetic, even monstrous, are revealed as flawed human beings whom the reader can ultimately sympathize with, at least on some level, through the perceptive and insightful quality of Rothbart's writing. In this tale involving the most serious of crimes and allegations, there are no easy answers, but the reader comes to trust Rothbart, and to believe in the conclusions he ultimately draws, due to the convincing power of his narrative skill.

My Heart Is An Idiot is a striking collection, one that will keep you turning pages until far past your bedtime, as one essay flows into the next. There's no real narrative through-line here, but there is an emotional one--Davy Rothbart's voice captures the emotional tenor of his life and reveals a man who moves through his days with an acceptance, and even an eagerness, for whatever gets thrown at him. His heart may not be smart enough to close itself off, but Rothbart's openheartedness is the best part of his writing, and if cynicism is the price he'd pay for learning to protect himself from strong emotion, then perhaps it's in all of our interest that his heart remains an idiot. Rothbart's wide-open vulnerability is what leads him to write with such penetrating brilliance, and it makes this book an absolute must-read.

Davy Rothbart, along with his brother, musician Peter Rothbart, will be bringing the Found Magazine 10th Anniversary Tour to Richmond on Sunday, September 23. They'll be appearing at the Firehouse Theatre, located at 1609 W. Broad St. Doors open at 8 PM, admission is $5. The tour celebrates the release of My Heart Is An Idiot, as well as Peter's latest album, You Are What You Dream, and a brand new issue of Found. Davy will be sharing stories from his new book and the latest of his magazine's amazing found items, while Peter will perform a set of songs based on found notes. The Rothbarts always put on a great show--come check it out!

By Andrew Necci; Davy Rothbart photo by Dan Busta