Ninety-nine bottles of pee on the wall and the search for love: Davy Rothbart’s My Heart Is an Idiot

Davy Rothbart's My Heart Is an IdiotI stumbled across My Heart Is an Idiot  in 2013, when one of the chapters made its way online. I don’t remember how I found it, only that I couldn’t stop reading it.

The chapter in question, you see, detailed the narrator’s history of peeing in bottles.

He explains the situation rationally, as though it was a completely normal situation. It started, he says, tending bar at a concert. He couldn’t leave his post, but the audience’s attention was clearly elsewhere and the bar afforded him privacy below the waist, so …

I’m sure you can figure out the rest.

This unlikely history continues as he breaks his leg and is confined to an upstairs bedroom for an extended period of time. You guessed it – the bathroom is downstairs. Our protagonist rarely makes the trek, but begins a collection of bottles filled with amber- and honey-coloured liquid.

He eventually starts sending these bottles as hate mail, which is both disgusting and intriguing.

The absurd little story trips along, so unlikely and on the edge of taboo that it remains enthralling until the very end.

In any case, by the time I reached the end of the chapter I realized that the book was non-fiction. The story, barring small creative liberties, was completely true.  Our stalwart narrator is Davy Rothbart. The history of pee-bottles is his, and it’s one of 16 odd, awkward, and wonderful stories tied together in My Heart is an Idiot.

For some reason, I find short non-fiction to be more compelling than short fiction – after all, each of these stories has a concrete basis in reality. These weird, awkward and sometimes look-away-painful things actually happened to someone. It’s more personal, and it’s more gripping. Anyone could make this stuff up – but to have this stuff happen to you seems like the most absurd combination of good and bad luck.

My only suggestion to the reader is to read slowly, and take a few days away from the book between each chapter. I finished the book in two or three days, and as I ruefully found out, a bit of a nasty undertone creeps into the stories when taken as a whole. Each by itself is enthralling, entertaining and unlikely, but a less positive theme becomes apparent; Rothbart is a bit of a creep. Every story revolves around a woman he is desperate to impress, a woman he is head over heels in love with – if he can only get this girl, he thinks, everything will be perfect at last.

The undertone of vague creepiness sneaks in when none of them resurfaces a second time over the course of 16 stories. No girl lives up to the golden ideal image Rothbart has of her when he first spies her, and one or both parties is let down. Sometimes this is gentler than others, like when a mysterious woman he’s been having phone sex with turns out to be a gay man. On the other end of the scale, he finally meets a long-distance girlfriend in person and finds himself flirting with her best friend out of boredom.

In the last chapter, Rothbart admits he’s been told as much; if he wanted to find “the one” so badly, his friends say, he probably would have by now. The realization is sad and a little bit hopeless; we’ve watched in anguish as he tries and tries and tries, finally arriving at the end of the book with a handful of perfect moments, half-formed conclusions and absolutely nothing tangible.

In any case, the endless (if fruitless) search leads to a variety of unbelievable situations; he finds a dead man in a pool, recounts his first attempt at beer pong, takes a Greyhound bus to the newly-destroyed twin towers (posing as a radio journalist), and plays detective at a years-old murder investigation. We travel from San Fran to New York to Missouri to the desert. This man is a slave to his whims, and we’re lucky enough to tag along on the ride.

Rothbart’s endless pursuit is, if nothing else, completely truthful. The reader recognizes the painful truth that none of these “perfect” women will keep him happy, even as he futilely chases the elusive woman of his dreams.

On some level, we know he recognizes this – and by the time we reach the end of the last chapter, I think everyone can agree his heart is, after all, truly an idiot.

You can find a copy of your own over at Abe Books (your favourite global conglomerate of independent bookstores), or you can read my original review over at The Cascade (and check out some of their other book reviews while you’re there, if you’re so inclined).

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