I came across “Human Snowball” in The Best American Non-Required Reading-2013.
And I thought it was fiction.
“Snowball” was in there with other short stories in the anthology and not marked any other way. It starts with a fairly factual opening statement:
“On February 14, 200, I took the Greyhound bus from Detroit to Buffalo to visit a girl named Lauren Hill. Not Lauryn Hill the singer, who did that cover of ‘Killing Me Softly,’ but another Lauren Hill, who’d gone to my high school, and now, almost ten years later, was about to become my girlfriend, I hoped.”
I mean, come on. That could be fiction. Reliable narrator and all that.
“Human Snowball” was one of my favorite “stories” in the collection and when I pinged Davy Rothbart on Twitter with the compliment he pinged me back: check out the whole book.
And I did.
“Essays.” Right there on the cover of My Heart is an Idiot. Not fiction.
Inside were 16 nifty tales that spew the heart and soul of one Davy Rothbart right there all over the stage.
With passion tattooed on his bicep for everyone to see, Davy Rothbart is the likable star and hero of his ever-changing world. Surely he’s literary three-way love child of Jack Kerouac, Studs Terkel and, I don’t know, Lord Byron. If you think your life might be a bit too dull, a bit too routine, a bit too lockstep, My Heart is an Idiot will give you armchair travel time with a guy who follows the smallest urges and wispiest reasons to chase down offbeat dreams and stray questions. And women. Mostly women. A stranger or two, maybe, but it would be a nice if all this being out there led to an introduction to a cool woman. You know, just because.
But like the action in “Human Snowball” (which is a terrific story/essay) Davy Rothbart gets bounced and whacked by the giant pinball flippers of life. Many of these stories start out being one thing and morph suddenly or slowly into something else. For 14 years, Rothbart has been running Found magazine, which collects love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles (this is from their web site)—anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life. He’s also a contributor to “This American Life” on NPR and there’s a ton of videos on YouTube from his endless roadshow and there is a documentary out there based on this volume of essays/stories/adventures.
But I just took My Heart is an Idiot for what it is—good writing and great storytelling. I don’t know if telling these stories come naturally, but they sure feel that way. Rothbart’s hopeless romanticism is everywhere, whether it’s chasing skirts or thinking through the guilt or innocence of a man imprisoned for murder. He can fall in love on sight and doesn’t mind admitting it, over and over.
Two of my favorites are the last two in the volume and, by this time, I was already a fan. I thought I’d downed a six-pack with the dude and caught up on a few years of his life. “The Strongest Man in the World” tells of Rothbart’s involvement and relationship with Byron Case, being held at a maximum-security state prison in Cameron, Missouri as part of a “uniquely steep” murder case. Here’s a sample of Rothbart’s inviting prose: “Picture me early this morning, driving up I-35 from Kansas City in a soft, warm rain. Byron’s mom, Evelyn, in the passenger seat of my van, telling energetic stories, and in the back, my brother Peter, listening in and looking out the window. It’s November, the week before Thanksgiving, and once we’re through the suburbs, the rain-soaked malls and Best Buys and Outback Steakhouses slide away, and dense patches of woods, filled with black, wet trees, their branches shaken free of leaves, rise up on the other side of the highway, beside vast empty fields of yellow wheat and dirt, and an occasional farmhouse or pair of sagging barn slumbering in the distance out on the rolling plains. Crows feasting on a roadkill deer halfway on the shoulder, halfway in the ditch, scatter as we rumble past, and I watch in the rearview mirror as they reconvene.” This tale is a sad one and those opening images set the tone beautifully.
“Ain’t That America” is a love story that revolves around a British girl named Anna. Anna was only twenty-five when they met, but also a friend of a friend “which earned me the chance to chat her up without any of the awkwardness of macking on a stranger.” There are talking in an L.A. bar and Rothbart is typically self-deprecating; he can’t believe his luck that Anna has locked onto him. This story / essay recounts Davy and Anna’s weekend trip to Joshua Tree in the desert of Southern California. They are together and then apart and, well, the end is all Hollywood and sunsets and choices. Beautiful.
For me, there are three main set pieces to this collection. First, “Tarantula,” in which Rothbart finds a dead body in swimming pool in the backyard of a friend while he’s (oh, just read the book) and figures out how to deal with it, due to the circumstances. Second, “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall,” in which Rothbart first fantasizes about how to humiliate a guy who runs a scam that exploits the hopes of would-be writers and then starts following through with the fantasy (and falling in love with a potential female cohort along the way). And “Shade,” in which Rothbart hopes against hope that a deep and thrilling virtual relationship might have some staying power in person. “Shade” gets downright harrowing—and heartbreaking. Again, the turns and arcs. Rothbart navigates by dream and fancy. He never hesitates to pull the trigger: let’s go.
In “New York, New York,” there’s a girl of course at the beginning and then one along the way and then, dashed hopes and, well, ain’t that America. It’s as good a 9-11 story as I’ve come across. More heartbreak. It’s clear Rothbart is happiest among the masses, crowded on a bus finding the humanity behind all those eyes. Self-indulgent in spots? I don’t care. These stories encourage humans to reach out, in person, and look beyond the surface. His heart might be an idiot, or least susceptible to beauty, but his mind is hard at work and you might just find yourself a bit more willing to be the starter flake on your own human snowball.
That’s a good thing.