Photo by Dorothy GotlibRecently, Davy Rothbart had the chance to spend a day breaking into other
people’s houses and removing their most prized possessions. For the creator of
Found, a magazine dedicated to scavenged documents of all kinds, it was
a golden opportunity: the chance to be both voyeur and Good Samaritan. Before
heading down to report on a flood-ravaged New Orleans for Ira Glass’ This American
Life, Rothbart had asked all his evacuated friends and acquaintances to describe
things he could grab from their ruined homes. Rothbart then spent a day digging
for the artifacts that give our lives meaning: a book of childhood photos, a videotape
of someone’s recently deceased mother, an ancient espresso machine.
“Yes, an espresso machine,” recalls the 30-year-old Rothbart. Maybe you’d expect some wiseacre remark about this from a rapper and former Chicago ticket scalper — Rothbart wisely began writing full-time the day Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls — but he reports his appliance-rescue operation without a trace of condescension. As with Hemingway’s famous six-word story, “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn,” Found demonstrates how much pathos can be harvested from a napkin doodle, laundry list or, for that matter, a stranger’s cherished kitchen appliance.Rothbart explains why he thinks so many of the found documents that readers submit to his magazine are tragic ones. “There’s a lot of missed meetings,” he says. “When things are going great, you’re less likely to write a note to someone. When there’s a breakup or someone’s died or you feel down and out, you’re more compelled to write something down. Sometimes I’ll open up some letter and start to cry because there is so much sadness in the world.”The discovery of Rothbart’s debut short-story collection, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, was equally fortuitous. In 2002, Rothbart told pal and indie cartoonist Paul Hornschemeier he was thinking of distributing photocopies of the collection at Found events. “The next thing I knew, he’d designed this beautiful book,” says Rothbart. “I was like, ‘Whoa, I guess I wrote a book!’ ”Rothbart was impressed enough to print up a few thousand copies at his own expense. “It was only in something like eight stores,” he says, “but I know Skylight Books in L.A. sold like 300 copies.” At a time when even the best books founder without big marketing budgets, the collection’s spontaneous success persuaded Simon & Schuster to publish it en masse.Like Found magazine, The Lone Surfer offers a catalog of tales too strange to not be true. Almost always they drift from unsubtle tragedy — the unlucky narrators are typically orphaned, dumped or imprisoned by the second paragraph — to interesting non sequiturs. Like the reverse of Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, they are tales not of buildings that collapse, but of beloved coffeemakers discovered amid the rubble.For instance: In the title story, the protagonist and his girlfriend are driving across the Midwest and on the verge of a breakup when the spectacle of a teenager riding a surfboard in the middle of a corn field arrests them: “We began to kiss. I’d never felt so happy to be right where I was. Crickets rang in great numbers across the fields. Night closed in; the air tasted of dew and wheat, motor oil and manure. I pressed my lips to Sally’s strawberry-sugar neck and to the soft spot by her ear. The boy kept up his weird dance. The Grand Canyon had maybe one-fortieth the magnificence.”Epiphanies such as these might grow tiresome, were they affected. Fictionalizing the lives of the dispossessed is as delicate a task as documenting them, but Rothbart brings dignity to even his least-eloquent narrators, like the inmate who laments in “How I Got Here,” “I dont know why theres a bad part of me but theres a bad part of me. Thats how i got here. I wish i was a magic stone turtle.” Rothbart insists that “People who aren’t practiced writers by accident will express themselves in a more powerful way than a practiced writer could.”Perhaps it helps that Rothbart once taught creative writing at a maximum-security prison, or that as a child he had to help his deaf spiritual-counselor mother communicate with distraught clients over the phone. “I would be 8 years old, talking to someone whose wife had just left him,” he recalls. In real life, Rothbart’s scavenger hunt as editor and reporter has taken him from Ground Zero to a post-tsunami Sri Lanka, but The Lone Surfer seems deliberately removed from the national turmoil of recent years. After 9/11, Rothbart headed to New York City’s Union Square Park, where anxious loved ones posted missing-person fliers.“There were these two guys playing a Game Boy in the middle of the mob,” he says. “One was 20, the other 40. They worked in fast-food restaurants and met in the park to play this old-school NFL video game. In the middle of all this grief, they were explaining to me the whole strategy whether to go with a running or passing game.”
Similarly dislocated souls populate The Lone Surfer: the pizza-delivery
boy who looks for meaning in the improbable death of his friend, a compulsive
liar; the bored hustler who lures truckers across the Mexican border into ambushes;
the chain-gang member who, offered the chance of escape, decides with his fellow
inmates to beat up an unpopular fellow inmate instead. In an age when riding the
subway, let alone drifting down the interstate, is perceived as reckless, Rothbart’s
characters still dare to seek adventure. In that sense, The Lone Surfer
almost willfully ignores the national trauma suffered in recent years.
That doesn’t mean Rothbart is disrespectful toward his subjects. While reporting on the debris-strewn streets of New Orleans, he says, he resisted prying too deeply. “I’ve almost never had this feeling, this was one of the first times, that I had to hold back. I was surrounded by these destroyed houses, but I wanted it to be as intact as it could be. I didn’t want to take anything that one day might be recovered by the owner.”Rather, Rothbart’s worldview is distinctly old-fashioned. It recalls Fitzgerald and Kerouac, writers for whom sadness wasn’t the product of historical accident, but simply a condition of American life. Like the inadvertent contributors to Found, his characters inhabit a continent so endless and empty — Rothbart is from the Midwest — that they will never have the chance to meet, or to share with one another the brief flashes of revelation Rothbart permits them, such as that bestowed on the imprisoned narrator of “First Snow”:“Every emotion can basically be experienced in two distinct ways: as felt in freedom, and as felt in shackles,” the character laments. “Even loneliness, and grief, and loss, cannot be felt as full in prison as when you are free.”
THE LONE SURFER OF MONTANA, KANSAS | By DAVY ROTHBART | Simon & Schuster
| 162 pages | $12 softcover | https://foundmagazine.com/
Davy and Peter Rothbart read at Skylight Books on Friday, November 4, at
7:30 p.m.; at Koo’s Art Center, in Long Beach, on Saturday, November 5, at 8 p.m.;
at Bang Studio, in Hollywood, on Sunday, November 6, at 7 p.m.
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