Nobody wakes up and thinks, Today is the day I'm gonna cheat on my girlfriend," Davy Rothbart writes at the outset of "Tarantula," an essay in his recently published debut collection, My Heart Is an Idiot. "The shit just kinda happens — a series of small, bad decisions that leads to one larger, pivotal collapse." Some people commit the act, repent, confess and try to recover the broken trust, but "then there are the rest of us, who carry our treacheries in silence for weeks, months and years at a time, like a low-grade fever, always aware of our own rotten cores, but not too caught up in it all to blunt the joys of everyday life."
Rothbart, the 37-year-old creator of Found magazine, is an engaging enough writer that "Tarantula" would work simply as a piece of doomed-relationship navel gazing. Yet, like just about every other piece in My Heart Is an Idiot, it transcends the merely personal to become a soulful, action-packed dispatch from some dark but familiar province of the modern American experience.
And no one else seems to have visited those provinces as extensively as Rothbart. He has spent most of the past decade crisscrossing the country to promote Found, which gathers strangers' discarded lists, letters, photographs and other ephemera and assembles from them a sort of collective poetry.
In 2009, though, he parked the van and turned his attention to recalling his own adventures.
"We didn't do a Found tour for about three and a half years, and I was working on this book, among other things, for most of that time," Rothbart tells The Pitch.
The result is the endlessly readable My Heart Is an Idiot, a set of stories about open roads and open hearts, and the dizzy victories and spectacular failures that pile up in the search for true romance. In "Shade," for instance, Rothbart falls in love over the phone, sight unseen, with Sarah, a college newspaper reporter assigned to interview him about Found. After months of intimate daily phone calls, he flies out to visit Sarah and finds her ... less than desirable. But this isn't a Tucker Max story. Rothbart's disappointment leads him to a place that muddies the border between honorable truth and blundering cruelty.
"Yeah, that was definitely one of the challenges of this book," Rothbart says. "It's one thing to put myself out there on the line and spill my guts, but when it involves other people, you have to make sure you portray them generously and honestly. With a lot of the people I wrote about, I reached out beforehand to ask for their recollection of things, details. And for their — I guess you would say I asked for their blessing to write about things, as opposed to their permission. Those were sometimes strange phone calls."
The book also sheds light on what in Rothbart's case might be labeled a disorder: his search for Shade. A sad, beautiful, ethereal teenager from the 1992 film Gas Food Lodging, Shade is a character, not a woman who exists in real life. "I still compare every girl I meet to Shade," he writes. Throughout the essays here, Rothbart idealizes the women he meets, then finds himself let down by their inevitable humanity, their non-Shade-ness. He's self-aware enough to recognize this blind spot as an obstacle to lasting, meaningful relationships. But that doesn't halt his absurd, quixotic search. Did assembling My Heart bring him any closer to getting over Shade?
"I think writing the book was a way for me to examine my experiences and see patterns emerge — patterns that your friends may have told you about but that you ignored before," Rothbart says. "Now, there's this whole book, this sort of personal self-history book, and so I guess that stuff is a little harder to ignore. That's why you study history, right? To not repeat the same mistakes. At the same time, I wouldn't say I'm immune to repeating those mistakes or acting in same ways, falling in love at first sight and all that. But I can recognize it for what it is."