21 Balloons Productions, 128 pp., $8
Ever taken a road trip on state highways in a beat-up boat of a car with a post-adolescent mystic insomniac? That's the feeling you get from Davy Rothbart's book of short stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas.
Rothbart is the founder of Found Magazine, a homemade zine of found letters, pictures and other odd detritus of humankind. Since its first small run, Found has evolved into a phenomenon, with thousands of copies, a book deal and its second North American tour coming up in July. Rothbart has also produced recent radio pieces for This American Life, and founded 21 Balloons Productions along with his nationwide posse of Found enthusiasts. (With all this quality high-profile multimedia output, Rothbart and crew are beginning to rival McSweeney's indie empire.)
Most of Found is made up of other people's lives as seen through the prism of their strange discarded notes; in the five stories in Lone Surfer, we catch a glimpse of how the author's narrative style and imagination have evolved through curating the Found archives of trash and treasure.
"Lie Big," the opening story, sets an ambitious tone with the narrator's recollection of his charismatic loser friend's greatest skill. "Each sad and damaging lie he told was followed by thirty wild, joyous, sprawling, magical lies. It was a glorious feeling to be in cahoots with him ... on the side of knowing."
Like the aforementioned lies, Rothbart's stories are ambitious and wild. In "Elena," a broke young guy takes up with a gang of malicious scam artists at a border town brothel in Mexico, only to fall in love with one of the prostitute's children, a teenager destined to follow in her mother's footsteps. The title story stands out as the best and most fully realized. In it, a young couple's on-the-road affair collides with a young boy's personal pain--as well as a defensive sheriff's Don Knotts-style mistake.
In addition to his work with Found, Rothbart is committed to literature and writing programs in prison, and his experience leading workshops for inmates comes across in the short piece, "How I Got Here." The narrator is in a writing class because he's bored with TV and wants to better himself for the sake of his daughter. The all-caps and bad punctuation convey the inadvertent urgency of so many of Found's letters, but Rothbart's phrasing is what captures the character. "I THINK THERE IS A BAD PART OF ME. MOSTLY I AM GOOD BUT SOMETIMES I GET A BAD NOTION."
While the pieces are often overwrought, full of romantic betrayal and stomach-wrenching epiphanies, they possess qualities that have sadly been going out of style in hipster fiction: complex characters in dramatic situations, treated with earnest compassion as they face life's random blows. You can forgive the stories' somewhat naive portrayal of women as otherworldly creatures full of impenetrable mystery, even though the first-person narration reads like it might spring from the author's own youthful romanticism. You can forgive almost any artist if he bothers to create a unique and captivating world. And that's what this small collection does. Taken as a whole, the stories create a world of young men on the road, moving in and out of trouble with the law--the literary equivalent, perhaps, of an early Bruce Springsteen album.
Rothbart and other Found folks will be in the Triangle as part of the "We Are Nighttime Travelers Tour" to promote this book and gather new finds: Wednesday, July 9, 8 p.m.: Manbites Dog Theater, Durham; Thursday, July 10, 8 p.m.: The Cave, Chapel Hill. The Lone Surfer and Found Magazine are available at the Regulator Bookshop, the Internationalist, and Quail Ridge Books. For more info, check out www.foundmagazine.com.