Davy Rothbart's magazine Found displays the scavenged items of modern, mundane American life. Angry little notes left for a cheating lover on the wrong person's windshield, earnest and awful letters to potential employers found near trashcans, photos of unknown strangers captured in the midst of past revelry -- these items are reproduced in Found as is, with no editorializing other than an explanation of how each item was found. These left-behind scraps of other lives reveal a common theme: people write things down when they really mean it. Putting a threat or a declaration or a wish on paper gives it a power that can't be rescinded. Putting the words in writing gives them a weight that can crush or comfort, depending on the writer's intention.
Rothbart wields that weight with heavy grace in his short story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. His characters are modern and mundane, and they struggle with themselves more than they realize. When understanding comes, it comes in a sharp little burst, like a fragment of someone else's life dropped into their consciousness. The young, unnamed narrator of "First Snow," after needlessly beating another man in his prison work detail, steps away from himself just long enough to see his own life unfolding before him: "I became dimly aware that although I would be freed in the spring, it would not be long before I was locked up again, and that realization hurt me worse than anything." There is cold comfort in knowing who you are, in knowing that it's you keeping you down.
This sense of intimate knowledge gleaned through the barest scraps of information -- that is the strength of Rothbart's work in fiction, as well as in his work as a collector of other people's lost thoughts.