Davy Rothbart’s My Heart Is An Idiot somewhat resembles his work with Found, the magazine he co-created in 2001. Found compiles discarded notes and other ephemera, and Rothbart has parlayed it into several best-of books. Both projects zoom in on tiny fragments of strangers’ lives, providing little context. In Found, readers have to fill in the blanks; in the book, Rothbart takes on that responsibility, with mixed results.
Twelve of the 16 essays tell stories about people Rothbart hardly knows or never sees again. At first, it’s easy to fall for the romance of these brief, intimate encounters, especially given Rothbart’s breezy prose. After a while, that wide-eyed perspective sours and starts to seem shallow. A little backstory, especially the women Rothbart’s encounters, would go a long way.
Rothbart sometimes treats people with staggering kindness, forming the basis of his best stories. In “The Strongest Man In The World,” he works tirelessly to defend a wrongfully convicted acquaintance, and in “New York, New York,” he interviews a patchwork of strangers, rendering a convincing portrait of America’s post-9/11 mourning. Throughout the book, he meets men with different ethnic backgrounds and income levels, but avoids stereotyping them based on those factors.
True to the book’s title, Rothbart often turns his focus to his own failed attempts at romance. While he treats his platonic acquaintances as individuals, his love interests all blur together. They’re pretty, tragic, and unfamiliar; they do not have comfortable lives. “I’m always drawn to girls in the service industry—waitresses, baristas, bartenders, concierges, strippers—basically anybody who’s working for tips,” Rothbart writes. “I dream of burrowing through their lacquered shell of professional friendliness to investigate the soulful edges I glimpse underneath.”
Rothbart’s fantasy girl is so well-defined, he even has a name for her: Shade. In “Shade,” Rothbart describes falling in love, at 17, with the character Shade from the movie Gas Food Lodging. He looks for the fictional character in every woman he meets. At 28, he believes he’s found her in a 22-year-old student who interviews him for the school paper. When Davy and the student finally meet in person, he decides to cut off the relationship and continue his search for a real-life Shade.
Though Rothbart acknowledges that he hurt the student, he mainly focuses on his own pain, and the loneliness and futility of pursuing an impossible romantic ideal. Yet it’s tough to feel too sorry for him when the women in his life often come from sorrier circumstances. Both parties have to contend with a failed relationship, but the women go home to their addictions and abusive families, and Rothbart to his nationally distributed magazine.
Time and again, Rothbart falls for strangers, or women he barely knows. He even devotes an entire essay, “Southwest,” to a crush he develops on a neighboring airplane passenger. “Maybe [my friends] were right,” Rothbart writes toward the end of the book, “and that precious, terrible longing I felt every time I saw a girl who could be ‘the one’ was an end in itself, and all I truly craved.” His steady devotion to his own ideal raises the question of what his girlfriends might want for themselves. But that’s a question he never bothers to ask or answer.
Altogether, it’s hard to dismiss Rothbart’s kindness toward strangers or his non-romance-related insights, many of which resonate. Still, it’s equally hard to sympathize with a man who longs to love a woman, but not a human. “I still compare every girl I meet to Shade,” he writes. Rothbart is 37.