“My Heart Is an Idiot,” by Davy Rothbart; Farrar, Straus and Giroux (320 pages, $26)
The love of Davy Rothbart’s life is a character from Allison Anders’ 1992 film “Gas Food Lodging.” Shade, played by Fairuza Balk, is the wan and ephemerally beautiful daughter of a New Mexico trailer park waitress. From the day Rothbart — the editor of Found magazine and a “This American Life” favorite — first saw the film, he’s fallen only for women with slivers of Shade to them: wraithlike girls who are often more fiction than fact.
“In the weeks and months that followed, my desire for her dominated my being... It’s been seventeen years since I came out of that theater, and I still compare every girl I meet to Shade,” he writes in “Shade,” one of the centerpiece stories in his memoir-heavy essay collection “My Heart Is an Idiot.”
If “Being an Incorrigible Wimpster” was an illness in the Diagnostic Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, this movie crush would be a good clinical definition for it. In “My Heart Is an Idiot,” which follows his wanderlusty misadventures across America, Rothbart is a manic pixie beta male whose foibles would be a five-alarm warning siren off the page.
Deep-sixing a sweet girlfriend for insufficiently evoking a character from a favorite movie? Deploying the master-stroke pickup line of asking a new crush to dump a bottle of his own urine on a shared publishing world foe? One must applaud his candor, but the guy makes the self-flagellating singer-songwriter Conor Oberst look like a model of square-jawed reserve.
And yet the picaresque “My Heart Is an Idiot” is somehow still a popcorn-munching romp through the psyche of today’s twitchy, self-aware clever boys. There is no more lambasted target here than Rothbart himself, and in the end, you do kind of root for him to find his Shade.
Rothbart isn’t so much a deeply considered essayist as he is a pure storyteller, and after years of gallivanting across the states in cheap vans on low-octane book tours, he’s got a deep quiver of them. From a heartfelt phone-sex relationship in “What are You Wearing” to the street-kid hitchhiking survey of “Canada or Bust,” Rothbart put in the highway miles to back up a road-trippy relationship memoir. He’s got a magpie knack for absurdist quote-collecting (a friend’s art teacher, on 9/11: “We can all stop what we’re doing and rush out of here and join the madness of the world ... or we can stay right here for the next hour and a half and create art!”), even if he’s prone to improbable metaphors like describing a road kill elk carcass as weighing as much as “a coffin full of ice.”