The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas: Stories
by Davy Rothbart
A review by Kevin Sampsell
You could call Davy Rothbart a mysterious man. Sure, he just did a big tour promoting his magazine, Found, (a buzz-worthy publication that focuses on various notes, photos, and oddities cast off by their original owners) and he's been on NPR a few times and in some big magazines, but he's still a mystery. Even after reading this impressive book of his short stories, finding out more about where they came from proved futile. None were previously published in magazines. There have been few, if any, reviews of this book to date. Not even a press release. A few e-mail exchanges later and I learn that the book was thrown together to bring along on the Found tour, and that the book's wider release isn't until March. You wouldn't know it was "thrown together" though. The design is superb and beautiful, without the obligatory typos that often come with small press books.
Rothbart's stories are as assured and wild and as full of life as someone fully at home in his craft. The flawed narrator and impending threat of tragedy reminds me of Denis Johnson. The fleshed-out details and Midwestern atmospherics recall Charles Baxter (who endorses the book on the back cover just below Ira Glass and above Arthur Miller). The anything-can-happen criminal tension could be mistaken for Jim Carroll (Rothbart even talks basketball a little). There's only one story that doesn't ring true — the ALL-CAPS "How I Got Here" — a short narrative about how its writer came to be in prison. Amid all the other stories about people's wrong-doings it just doesn't seem as interesting or inspired. In "Elena" for instance, the narrator tells how he gets involved with Mexican strip club owners to make some dirty money. During this time while he lures American truckers to the club where they are beaten and robbed, he also falls in love with the fourteen-year-old daughter of one of the dancers. He dreams of taking her away before she ends up a dancer (and prostitute) like her mother. The guilty feelings about his role in the truckers' beatings eventually make him numb to everything except this obsession for Elena.
Another powerful story, the title piece, anchors the book right in the middle. A young couple from Virginia seem to be searching for themselves as they take a long roundabout road trip to Arizona. The instability of young love is painfully apparent: "I loved her terribly and she loved me, too. I also knew she held things back, that she hadn't yet fully revealed herself to me, but I figured that's why we were headed to Arizona — to explore one another, to open ourselves completely...She'd been through a lot; for her, closeness was difficult, even harrowing."
All of Rothbart's stories are told in first person, which only adds to my curiosity about his personal history. When someone's fiction seems so real, you can't help but wonder where it comes from. After all, sometimes the truth about someone can be found in their fiction.