[24 September 2012]
When I first started reading Davy Rothbart’s new essay collection, My Heart is an Idiot, I was worried. It begins, “When I was a kid, I had a friend down the street named Kwame whose older brother was mentally handicapped. This gave Kwame license, he felt, to make fun of other mentally handicapped folks he encountered. If anyone gave him grief for it, he’d say, ‘Hey, I’m just playin’ around—my brother’s a retard.’”
Not to sound like the PC police, but this seemed like a risky opening for a book. Deliberately offensive jokes always seem less funny than intended. It’s not that rude jokes can’t get a laugh; they just seem tougher to execute well, like a diving routine with a few extra twists and somersaults.
As a result, I read that opening essay, “Bigger and Deafer”, a little skeptically. Kwame would “dropkick retard jokes” to his brother since it’s fine to mock your own kin, although “if anyone else unleashed the same kind of jokes, they’d get their ass beat quick.” Young Davy took the cue from Kawme and decided that it was okay to make fun of his deaf mother, loudly calling her a bitch in front of stunned neighborhood kids. None of this bode well for the book, I thought, but the storytelling was entertaining enough, so I went with it. I’m glad I did. I got used to the style, and the book improved with each passing tale.
If the essays seemed a little brash at first, I probably should’ve expected it. Like the stories in Rothbart’s The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas and the rouge notes in his Found magazine, My Heart is an Idiot offers a delightfully random slice of humanity including scrappy kids, scam artists, convicts, working-class guys just trying to keep a roof over their heads, and dream girls wasting away in food service jobs. The book is dedicated to “the townies”. It doesn’t go out to the white girls from Connecticut. It’s not terribly polite.
Rothbart is known for his work on WBEZ’s This American Life and for Found, which is filled with notes, lists, letters, and other funny, heartfelt, and illuminating scraps found in gutters across America. My Heart is an Idiot includes the kind of diverse souls who probably wrote the Found notes—funny things like “it was a lizard—in response to what’s the awful smell in my trunk?” and “Be Right Back -Godot”.
The short stories in The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas have similarly quirky characters, but they seem maybe a little too precious in their oddness; sometimes the truth really is stranger (and better) than fiction. My Heart is an Idiot combines the best of Found and The Lone Surfer; it brings an array of real, hard-living Americans to life on the page in a way that seems true and relatable, and it gives readers reasons to think, feel, and on more than a few occasions, to laugh out loud at Davy’s shocking sense of humor. (Don’t read this book on the train, or if you do, be prepared to call attention to yourself.)
“Bigger and Deafer” didn’t dazzle me at first, but “Human Snowball” did, chronicling one crazy night when Davy collected a posse of new friends including a Canadian car thief, a 110-year-old man, and a family that runs a local Chinese restaurant. The whole tale hammers home the power of solidarity, the notion that we can accomplish more together than we can on our own, and the truth that most people, despite our prejudices and first impressions, are pretty good, at heart.
Of course, goodness is a relative concept. The crew celebrated surviving the evening by drinking at this kind of bar: “People shouted over the deafening thump of a jukebox and the thunderous rattle of empty bottles being tossed into a metal drum. Directly overhead, two hockey games roared from a pair of giant TVs. It smelled like someone had puked on a campfire. All of which is to say, just the way I liked it.”
The way “Human Snowball” is written, we’re never really asked to judge Canadian Chris for his car thievery. He’s too cute, too generous. But as the story progresses, the moral ambiguity thickens. The characters become shadier, and the stories grow suspenseful. Who is Nicole of “What are You Wearing?” and what is Lon Hackney up to in “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall” up to? (And for that matter, what is Davy up to in that story?) Things grow darker in “Tarantula”, and by the time “The Strongest Man in the World” comes around, My Heart is an Idiot becomes truly impossible to put down.
Rothbart writes about these messy lives with humor and generosity, and even when I disliked them, I was curious about them. There’s a familiar relationship between Davy and the characters he meets in each essay. If he’s gently (or not-so-gently) mocking them, it might be in a brotherly way, the way Kwame jabbed his brother in the first story. And the author is just as quick to portray himself as rough around the edges, dopey heart and all.
Comparatively, Davy’s dream girls are some of the least compelling characters. They’re prizes at the end of the quest, or else they’re mirages vanishing in the desert. But that’s okay; they’re the impossible dreams that push the guy into these incredible situations, meeting these far less lovely but more immediately absorbing people populating his adventurous life. He never suggests that these girls don’t have their own messy inner lives; only that his heart can’t truly recognize them. (Davy even misreads his mother in the first book, thinking he’s in control of the pranks, when really, his mother is playing her own, knowing game.)
In the end, My Heart is an Idiot really is a fascinating lesson on how to live: with an open mind and heart, willing to travel dusty roads through small towns, mixing with the people most folks rarely meet, learning from them, and embracing the adventure of life. It isn’t the only way to live a fulfilling life, but it’s certainly one way. And it’s very convincing.