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."
If there's a test for that sense of history and recognition, Rothbart is taking it now. He's back on the road, in the midst of a 75-city tour plugging My Heart and celebrating Found's 10th anniversary. And he has been re-encountering some of the people who became characters in the book.
"So far, I haven't heard from anybody that's been unhappy with the way they were portrayed, which is good," he says. "But there's definitely been nights when I've been nervous. At our Brooklyn show, Hakim, the hitchhiker I pick up in 'Canada or Bust,' was there, and so was his mom. That was a little uncomfortable." In that essay, Rothbart reveals that Hakim's mom sold her son's video games to buy drugs. "Obviously it was a time in her life she isn't proud of."
And the women? "I'm still friends with Sarah," Rothbart says. "She saw an earlier draft of 'Shade,' but I haven't seen her yet. It'll be interesting."
While Rothbart is in Kansas City this weekend, he plans to see another character from My Heart, though it won't be at his Saturday RecordBar show or his Sunday appearance at the Johnson County Central Resource Library. Instead, he'll drive to the Crossroads Correctional Center, in Cameron, Missouri, to visit with Byron Case.
As a teenager, Case was an early Found reader and submitter. He picked up notes he found at places like the Broadway Café in Westport and sent them on to Rothbart. The two soon struck up a correspondence, writing and sending each other letters the old-fashioned way, via post. After an extended silence on Case's end, Rothbart sent him a new issue of Found, which contained some of his submissions. A few weeks later, he received a note from Case's mother explaining that her son had been convicted in the murder of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. The teenage girl was found with a bullet in her head at Lincoln Cemetery, near Truman Road and Interstate 435, in October 1997. Case was sentenced to life in prison in 2002. His mother believes that the conviction was wrongful.
In "The Strongest Man in the World," the longest and most sober essay in My Heart, Rothbart tells the story of his relationship with Case and his ongoing role in the effort to reverse the guilty verdict. Case knew the victim — she was the girlfriend of his best friend, Justin Bruton, who killed himself the day after WitbolsFeugen was found dead. Case was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime. The most incriminating evidence was a taped phone call between Case and his ex-girlfriend (who also was close with Bruton and WitbolsFeugen at the time of their deaths), which strongly suggested that Case was familiar with the details of the crime. ("Cemetery Plot," May 16, 2002, The Pitch story about the trial, is accessible at pitch.com.)
But new revelations, dug up by J. Bennett Allen, an author of a book about the crime (The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case), cast doubt on the legitimacy of the phone call and its transcript. Allen's reporting has given Rothbart and Case's supporters (centralized online at freebyroncase.com) a fresh glimmer of hope.
"It's strange for me when we're doing a Found thing in Kansas City," Rothbart says. "You walk around Westport and can't help but think of it as Byron's old stomping grounds. His absence from Kansas City is really noticeable to me. And it just seems like such a massive injustice — knowing Byron, it's just incomprehensible to me that anyone could think he's capable of committing that crime. If he did it, I would have to be getting duped by an absolute mastermind criminal."
He goes on: "And I think that is what the family and friends of the victim think — they believe that justice was served. But I feel like they don't really know Byron. Imagine if your best friend was locked up for a murder, and he's telling you he didn't do it? I don't know how else to explain it. And he has just stayed so optimistic throughout. He's found a way to endure this nightmare.
"John Allen continues to uncover important, scientific problems with Byron's conviction, and the Innocence Project does amazing work," Rothbart continues. "But since he wasn't convicted with much physical evidence, there isn't much physical evidence to overturn."
Case's best shot at release is a pardon from Gov. Jay Nixon. Case's attorneys have applied for a pardon and met with Nixon's legal team. "I'm not very familiar with the process, so I don't really know exactly what's going on," Rothbart says. "But from what I've heard, it sounds like they were at least an attentive audience. Whether that will move into action is hard to say. It's rare for governors to pardon."
It's true: A felon who has a hard time readjusting to the outside world, struggles to find employment, and eventually commits a crime makes bad PR for a sitting politician. In a letter he recently wrote to Nixon on Case's behalf, Rothbart assured Nixon that Case would have a soft landing if he were let out. Rothbart says, "I told him if Byron were released, he would have a full-time job waiting for him with Found magazine."