Do you know Davy Rothbart? You probably feel like you do if you’ve ever picked up an issue of Found magazine at Quimby’s, or tunneled through an afternoon on the Found website. Maybe your ears perk when he’s on “This American Life. ” Or maybe you’ve actually met him? Davy is a guy who says hi to everyone, who could have a conversation with a brick wall and make it interesting, a guy who promotes his myriad projects by touring the country for months at a time, and Davy might be the only person in the world who’s hung out with both Mister Rogers and Kid Rock.
I met Davy through a friend of a friend back in the very first days of Found, which launched in Chicago in 2001. Within months, he had hooked me up with the weirdest job I’ve ever had selling tickets to various events out of an art gallery. Davy also set me up with a place to crash on my first college road trip, UIC to New Mexico, in an adobe house in the mountains of Taos. I had never met Liam, my host, until I arrived.
This is all to say that Davy makes fast friends, and his new memoir, “My Heart Is an Idiot” provides a glimpse into the roving, generous spirit that compels him to do so. The book is a collection of essays that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes incredibly tender, but overall, it’s a portrait of a guy with a big, sad, friendly heart that he wears on his sleeve. The strongest piece in the collection, “Human Snowball,” debuts the theme that winds through most of these stories: Davy has a crush, Davy goes on a journey to profess his love, adventure ensues. Here, he befriends his seatmate, Vernon, on a Greyhound bus from Detroit to Buffalo, a wizened old black guy who claims he is turning 110 years old at midnight. As the story progresses, Davy, Vernon, a family who owns a Chinese restaurant, a Canadian car thief, a pregnant lady and, impossibly, several other people tool around Buffalo in a stolen SUV as Davy agonizes over how to approach the woman he’s been pining for long-distance. As they approach the bar where she works, he writes, “a plume of merriment rose in my chest that was six parts the gentle glow of heading into any bar on a cold, snowy night and four parts the wonderful, unpredictable madness of having a hundred and ten year old man I’d just met on the Greyhound bus as my wingman.” This story has a warm ending. Not all of them do.
“Tarantula” is one of the few pieces here where Davy already has the girl, but there’s a fraught journey to be had anyway. The opening line, “Nobody wakes up and thinks, Today is the day I’m gonna cheat on my girlfriend,” sets the mood for a chain of events that involves a dead guy in a swimming pool. There’s stuff in these pages that seems too incredible to have really happened, but there’s some unflattering, raw honesty that leaves no doubt that it’s true. In “Shade,” Davy again takes a trip to see a girl, one he’s never laid eyes on before. Her name is Sarah, and they’ve fallen in love after a phone interview, talking for hours, but when Davy meets her, he sees a “plain-looking stranger” whose friend Ivy is “about forty-four percent hotter.” He’s tortured, he’s human; he knows what it’s like to be the friend that’s not as hot.
What I came away with when I finished this book was yeah, I know this guy. But you know this guy, too. You’ve dated him, or you’ve been him. You’ve experienced that bizarre obsession with someone that ruins your life for a while. You’ve been rejected. You’ve been amazed by strangers, befriended someone on a voyage, seen beautiful trees and sad landscapes from a car window. Then again, you might actually know Davy Rothbart—he gets around. (Jessica Meyer)
Davy and Peter Rothbart appear at the Old Town School of Folk Music, November 2, 8pm, 4544 North Lincoln, (773)728-6000. $10-$12.
“My Heart Is an Idiot”
By Davy Rothbart
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 320 pages, $25