Verbal Tumbleweeds: Davy Rothbart's My Heart is an Idiot

Catherine Wargo Roberts

In John Updike’s 1977 anthology “Picked-Up Pieces,” he puts forth six rules for gracious and fair reviewing. In this review of Davy Rothbart’s recent book of essays, My Heart is an Idiot, I chose to follow those masterful guidelines:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

Although no one can ever truly understand what the author really wished to do, unless he himself told you, I believe this one is pretty clear. Davy Rothbart is an individual intensely interested in the human condition, specifically in the female of the species. He has lost his heart many times to many different females and is attempting to make sense of all the favors and wrongs love has done him by penning this volume of essays. This essay collection feels like a reckoning for Rothbart: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he was getting married or having a child or setting sail on an around-the-world journey and felt that these stories were baggage that he must jettison. I cannot blame him for not achieving that which he did not attempt: any reader will fully understand that he is not in any way trying to solve the problems of this world or make any kind of grand statement about life and love. He is trying to figure things out for himself, and for his sake, I hope he did that.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

From the second essay in the book, “Human Snowball,” in which Rothbart acts like just that: in an impromptu visit to Buffalo, New York in search of a girl, his night veers wildly off course. He ends up in the company of a new rag-tag bunch of friends including a 110-year-old man, a couple that owns a strip mall Chinese restaurant, and a car thief.

“Later in the night, much later, I ended up telling Lauren that I loved her, and she told me she loved me, too. And the next afternoon, when we woke up, hung over but in fine spirits, we went for the walk I’d fantasized about, through a city transformed by almost two feet of snow.  Every tree, every bush, every fire hydrant, and every garbage can was laced with soft, gentle beauty, like we’d crossed through a portal into some distant, magic land. In a few weeks, of course, Lauren Hill was no longer with me, she was with that dude named Darrell, the other bartender at Freighter’s, and Mr. Liu’s restaurant, I learned, went out of business just a few months after that. Vernon made it to late summer, Darla told me later, then he simply lay down on a park bench in Little Rock and died. But don’t you see, none of that mattered, none of that mattered, none of that mattered. Because you can take away Lauren Hill, you can take away the love we had for each other, but you can’t take away the feeling I had that night at midnight, as I squeezed her hand and looked at my new, glorious tangle of friends, letting my eyes briefly catch their eyes and linger on each of their faces, the whiskey in each shot glass sparkling like a supernova.  If there’s ever been a happier moment in my life, I can’t remember it.”

Rothbart’s style is kind of rambling, like a verbal tumbleweed. His sensual descriptions are beautiful and heartfelt. His jumps in time are smooth and his direct address to the reader, something that is a stumbling block for a lot of writers and readers, is effective and feels deserved.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

This book is essentially about Rothbart falling in love over and over again, with some misadventures with people he is not in love with mixed in. He is the definition of extrovert, and derives his energy from his interaction with other people. Like, for example, in an essay called “How I Got These Boots,” a question no one asked and the answer to which has no relation to anything in the rest of the book. This essay functions as one of what I found myself referring to as the “in-betweeners,” short essays that Rothbart wedges in between unrequited love stories, as if to prove to the reader that he is not simply obsessed with chasing tail. In this excerpt, he picks up a hitchhiker named John who is headed for the Grand Canyon, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“In the morning, we drove down to the park office to see if we could stir up a job for John working trail maintenance or guiding hiking tours. The head ranger, astonished at his depth of knowledge, hired him on the spot. I bought John a few days of groceries and paid for his campsite through the weekend.

'Look,' John said, 'I can’t let you just spend a hundred bucks on me. You got to take these.' He pressed the hiking boots into my hands.”

Besides the “in-betweeners,” Rothbart just falls in love over and over and over again.

In the forty-page essay “Shade,” which I feel is the heart of the collection and tells us the most about our narrator, Rothbart falls in love with four women.  The first a fictional character, the second in college, the third over the phone, and the fourth while getting a sandwich.

Girl One: Shade; from Gas, Food, Lodging

“One night, a month into my first semester, I went to see Gas, Food, Lodging…in just an hour and a half, I fell so deeply and powerfully in love with Shade that when I left the theater I felt like a different person—profoundly transformed and filled with a terrible, rapturous heartache…I was overjoyed that I’d found my soulmate, but distressed that she was only a character in a movie.”

Girl Two: Maggie Jones, college girlfriend

“I saw a girl sitting fifty feet from me, her boots tucked ubeneath her in her chair as she stared forlornly at the screen of her Mac, and I knew I’d found Shade at last. I gathered my courage and talked to her and got her name and phone number. This was Maggie Jones.”

Girl Three: Sarah Culkin, girl reporter from the University Of Arizona Daily Wildcat

“That first week we talked every night from around midnight until the sun came up. I’d lie in my bed in the darkness, looking up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, Sarah’s voice in my ear, and it was as though she was lying there with me. How do I describe the sweetness, nourishment, and ecstasy of those conversations? Or souls were lacing tight to each other—I was deep in it, swelled with hope and happiness.”

Girl Four: Mexican girl at Subway

“Inside Subway, the Mexican girl who’d dressed our subs was wiping down the counter with a blue sponge and singing to herself, draped in a kind of brave and naked mournfulness. My heart felt bent in half. I loved that girl more in that moment than I’d loved any girl ever.”

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

Rothbart’s book doesn’t have a traditional plot, so I am not in danger of summarizing it. I will not give away the ending. I hope that I have approached the book as the author intended, and am thus not lumped into the maligned group of “detested reviewers.”

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

The only manner in which I could possibly judge this book deficient is in its truthfulness. I know that it is not 100% nonfiction, because no memoir is ever 100% nonfiction. And I know it, because of his disclaimer at the beginning of the book:

“This book is a memoir. Occasionally, certain aspects—characters, locales, scenes, names of businesses, and bits of dialogue—have been altered, amalgamated, reordered, refashioned, omitted, or even fictionalized to conceal identities and preserve narrative flow. But even as small creative liberties have been taken, all of these stories are grounded in truth. Enjoy!”

Updike suggests the reviewer cite a successful example from elsewhere, and in that, I fail. As a genre, memoir is constantly crashing into questions of veracity: Did these events really happen? Is this how they happened? And who says so? Rothbart gets out in front of that question, facing it like a bullfighter. This statement is his red cape, and it allows the literary bull we call Truth rage right by him. His credibility as an author and his writing emerge from the confrontation virtually unscathed

6. To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Davy Rothbart is an omnivorous love monster. Full disclosure? He had a brief romance with one of my dearest friends during the time period that this book covers. I wanted to see if she was in it, and I looked for her in every woman he wrote about. Rothbart’s women are difficult to keep track of. There are a couple of girls named Sara, and the names of many others begin with an “L.” I found several women that could have been my friend, but really, they almost all blended together by the last page. Rothbart can’t help himself. His heart is an idiot.

My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays
By Davy Rothbart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (September 4, 2012)
ISBN: 978-0374280840



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