It’s hard to disagree with Arthur Miller. Right on the cover of Davy Rothbart’s debut collection of short stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, we find one of the deans of American literature proclaiming, "Davy writes with his whole heart. These stories are crushing."
Maybe that’s not what you’d expect from a rapper and documentary filmmaker who’s made a name for himself by collecting scraps of other people’s lives in his Found magazine, which may be the most logical extension of postmodern literary thinking — why write a magazine when you can compile one from what’s already been written by other people? But with his stories, Rothbart seems to be saying that we write nowadays if only to feel, and we read if only to remember that other people feel the same things we do. The characters who populate his stories may or may not be representative of his readership, however. Two are prisoners. Three others risk jail with their actions. All of them reside in a gray moral reality — the spectrum runs from playing Peeping Tom on Grandma to scalping tickets to working for pimps to hitting someone upside the head with a shovel. These first-person narrators are pathetic the way mangy stray dogs are — you feel bad for them, but you’re not that psyched about taking them home.
It’s interesting to note what’s lacking here. Any healthy relationships? Nope. The guys are scared to death their gals are on the way out, or they’re pining after 14-year-olds, or they’ve fantasized themselves into ridiculous situations. Nuclear families? The only one we get is cursed with a daughter dying of cystic fibrosis. Elsewhere, the parental figures are all grandparents. How about a steady job? Uh-uh. Either these guys have plenty of time to drive about aimlessly and loaf with the elderly or they make their money skimming quarters at the airport or scamming truckers into whoring around at dive bars in Mexico.
Like more than a few of his contemporaries — Arthur Bradford, Lewis Robinson, David Foster Wallace, George Singleton — Rothbart shines a hard-to-offend light on America’s underbelly (which may actually be located in Ypsilanti, Michigan). But whereas others seem to do it because they can, Rothbart makes you care about the underbelly’s mistake-prone residents. He knows that feeling you get sometimes where you almost don’t want good things to happen because you’re afraid you’ll screw up.
In the title story, Gulliver and his girl come upon a kid "half-squatting, half-standing on a plank that rested in a hammock slung between the dead hulls of two enormous tractors," along a road in the barrens of Montana. They become mesmerized. They kiss. Suddenly, Gulliver realizes the kid is surfing. "In my excitement my left foot slipped off the clutch and the car stalled and jerked forward. The kid whirled his head and shoulders around like he’d been shot at and in that sudden torque lost his balance and tumbled backward wildly from his board. He hit the ground with a cinder-block thump and lay dazed beneath the hammock."
Rothbart needn’t worry. His stories ride waves of melancholy like an old pro and never fall down.
Davy Rothbart reads at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St, Brookline | Sept 20 | 6 pm | 617.566.6660.
Issue Date: September 16 - 22, 2005
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