After reading Davy Rothbart’s hyper-sincere, haplessly romantic 2012 essay collection My Heart is an Idiot (out this month in paperback), I developed intense, confusing feelings for Davy Rothbart. I became moony, overly invested, and a little like, well, Davy Rothbart himself is in his book. I wanted to talk to people about him, but I also didn’t, because I was afraid someone more sophisticated than me would say, “Oh, not Davy Rothbart.” And then I would wind up feeling weird about Davy Rothbart and hating that person.
No one, I fear, will understand my thing with Davy Rothbart. I should keep it a secret, the way Davy Rothbart should have kept his phone-sex relationship with the stranger who called him at a Motel 6 secret from his brother Peter, or his bottles of pee a secret from Ondra, that nice teen-novel writer who he went out with that time and she had sparkle makeup on and that’s how he knew it was a date. But I can’t! As a Rothbartian disciple, I must try to explain, even though it will probably end in the same sort of awkwardness that most of his affairs do.
To begin: the book. It’s so good. In it, Rothbart—who also created and tours with Found magazine, and met Mister Rogers, and wrote a confessional about porn for New York magazine, and contributes to NPR, and has a documentary, Medora, coming out in November—travels, drinks, and foolishly entangles himself in various pseudo-romantic relationships with women around the country. In his self-deprecation, poetic-journalistic style, and winsomeness, he elevates the road trip to a religious calling, the crush to a sacrament. The book is basically a perfect distillation of the freedom and hopelessness of being flailingly twenty-or-thirty-something (he is now 38), and it is the ultimate fulfillment of the 1990s’ ethics of sincerity and fair play. My Heart is an Idiot is the Say Anything boom box of essay collections.
Kerouac made young men believe that being self-involved was a noble calling. Rothbart isn’t like that. He is both slutty and romantic, loveable but also a mess. And he does his best.
Davy Rothbart loves the book On the Road and even, at a hitchhiker’s suggestion, called the proposal for My Heart Is an Idiot “On the Road 2.” (His FSG editor wisely nixed that.) It shows. He is the good things about Jack Kerouac without the bad ones. He is the beat hero 2.0—a guy’s guy, with the beer and the basketball, and yet a true Third Wave Feminist. (His older brother, a Women’s Studies major, took him to Take Back the Night marches when he was a teenager.)
I like some of Jack Kerouac’s books, but his legacy is mixed. When I was sixteen, my older then-boyfriend and his friends discovered On the Road, and it was worse for them than the booze they drank or the pot they smoked. Worse than The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Doors movie, and even The Fountainhead (although Ayn Rand, too, has a lot to answer for). One of the guys in the group decided he was Jack Kerouac and my boyfriend was Neal Cassady and their other friend was Allen Ginsberg. And I was…? Well, I had a choice, didn’t I, between being a good-time girl on the road trip, or a drag who gets left at home.
What Kerouac did was make young men believe that being self-involved was actually a noble calling. Rothbart isn’t like that. He is both slutty and romantic, and loveable but also a mess. And he’s game, which as everyone knows is at least half of what it takes to be a good partner. He’s curious. And he does his best. When he finally meets a woman he’s fallen in love with from afar, and realizes she’s not in fact a doppelganger for the woman of his dreams—Shade, a character in the 1992 movie Gas, Food Lodging, which of course he’s into because he’s the most ‘90s-sincere person ever—he still drives too fast with her through the American Southwest.
The story about Jack Kerouac writing his entire book in one flood on teletype paper convinced my high school boyfriend and his friends that “first thought, best thought” was a good life strategy. Maybe when you’re a grown-up person with a lot of integrity and wisdom that’s true, but when you’re seventeen and have done a lot of acid it is not. Rothbart, while he’s doing a lot of the same things—the drinking, the rambling through the country, the falling in and out of love and lust—he’s doing them with genuine humanity.
In “The Human Snowball,” a My Heart Is an Idiot story excerpted by The Paris Review, he goes on a road trip to see another girl he thought was his soulmate. There is a stolen car, a Greyhound bus, scratch-off lotto, and a perfect, pure moment in a bar, when men and women, young and old, of several races, come together on Valentine’s Day, at the end of a long night. It’s embarrassingly sentimental, and full of hope, and the polar opposite of beat.