Book Review: My Heart is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart

By Wes Newbury

My Heart is an Idiot is an aptly-titled compilation of essays recounting Davy Rothbart’s years on the road, looking for love in all the wrong places.

I first heard Rothbart on NPR.  He read from his book and the phone lines lit up with female callers who wanted to confirm that this was “their Davy” on the radio.  All sorts of people called in from all over the country and they all had something nice to say about him.  He sounded like an interesting guy, or at least like a well-traveled dirtbag with a story to tell.  My aunt had heard the program, too.  Davy reminded her of an aspiring dirtbag nephew of hers and soon enough his book came to me as a Christmas present.

I picked it up and put it down.  The writing was mediocre, the content was juvenile, and it just felt like a trashy read.  Still, it held my curiosity.  I read a few pages here and there, on the train, at work, and soon I began to warm up to it.  Rothbart was doing something different and he was doing it with brutal honesty.

Rothbart has led the life of the modern American drifter; surfing couches, riding Greyhounds, downing beer bottles, filling them back up with pee.  He gropes his way through life in search of human contact.  My Heart is an Idiot is the story of his romantic misadventures as the idiotic impulses of his heart drag him around the United States.

I took the book out of my bag as I sat at the end of an empty bar at a burger joint around lunchtime.  The bartender was cute, bobbing her head to the percussive music as she went about her work.  Eventually she looked up at me.  Her long red hair splayed across her shoulders like wild fire and her green eyes were as cool as ice. “Something to drink?”

“Please,” I said, pointing to the tap handle shaped like a nine. “Is that Magic Hat?”

“Sure is,” she said as she bent over and reached into the freezer for a frozen glass. By the time she resurfaced, I was fully entranced. “Is that what you want?” she asked, hand on cocked hip.

I nodded and smiled. “Please.”

“My favorite,” she remarked as she spilled excess foam off the top. “What you reading there?”

I looked at the bright green jacket with a picture of a flexing bicep as if I needed to remind myself.  I flipped it around and let her see the cover.  “Its about some hopeless romantic tramping through the country and all the trouble he gets into.”

“Oh yeah?” she said. “Kind of like On the Road?”

I scoffed a bit to even compare Rothbart to Kerouac, but in a way it made sense.  “Yeah,” I said. “I guess it is. It’s like On the Road for the emotionally impaired.”  As soon as I said it I felt my heart swoon.  Did this beautiful woman want to talk about literature?  I stuttered on, afraid to lose her interest.

“It’s not great writing, but it has a real genuine voice.  Kind of like Junot Diaz, but more of a white hipster guy.”  She smiled politely, like you do for a foreign person when you don’t really understand what they had just said.

“Nice,” she said, handing me my beer.  I reached for the glass and awkwardly gripped her fingers.  She smiled and placed the beer on the bar.  “I’ll be back in a minute for your order.”  Her words were sweet and promising.  I was excited and nervous, almost anxious for her return.  Was this love?  Should I follow my heart into the amorous wilderness it yearns to explore, or is my heart an idiot?  I read on.

Rothbart writes with self-annihilating honesty, the kind that can make a reader cringe.  He is a fool, but he is unashamed of it. His casual stream of consciousness rings of authenticity. Picking up his book is like picking up the receiver to a telephone.  Rothbart is funny and his moments of self-loathing are ridiculous and probably universal.  His stories are like cultural time capsules from the not so distant past, echoing many of the personal romantic regrets we all remember well.

He is the person we hope we never were or will become — but beware.  For anybody who believes in spontaneous human connections, foolhardy intuitions, and the beauty of a nomadic lifestyle, you might be in company with Davy Rothbart.  And your heart might be an idiot too.

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