Shelf Space - All's not lost in Requiem for a Paper Bag

Monday April 27, 2009 10:00 am EDT

"I'm the sort of person who always has to turn over each piece of paper I see to make sure the secrets of the universe aren't written on the other side," filmmaker Miranda July admits near the beginning of Requiem for a Paper Bag, a new anthology from Found magazine editor Davy Rothbart. Requiem's a collection of stories from people who, like July, rummage through thrift stores, dumpsters, and alleyways to rescue minor treasures from the refuse of the world. The result is equal parts transcendent and trashy.

Rothbart's packed the volume with a wealth of contributors. A Pulitzer Prize winner fits comfortably among punk 'zine writers. Hip musicians mingle with literary editors. Robert Olen Butler considers a stray postcard's significance. David Simon digs through the Baltimore murder case files for a lost letter from Bob Dylan. Devendra Banhart comes across a magical frog, and Chuck D teaches a lesson in combing junkyards. It's as funny as it is fascinating, trading heavily on voyeuristic glimpses into strange lives.

Take, for instance, the typewritten monthly budget from issue No. 3, which allocates 600 bucks apiece for rent, liquor and crack, along with some money for the laundry ($30), a lawyer ($250), and "asvings" ($100). The combination is too much for Chuck Klosterman, who suspects the list is a figment of imagination, a "dream lost bohemian, fascinating to all." Who, in reality, could smoke cocaine all month, keep his clothes clean, and still save some money?
Other observations are more earnest, such as author Al Burian's ruminations over a discovered box of love letters, yearbooks, diaries, and photographs from some unknown Sheri Miller. He frets about finding her to return the seemingly treasured collection, but is interrupted from reading her letters by an eviction from a landlord who threatens to burn down the house. Eventually, he finds himself living with a few possessions in a shed not unlike the one in which he found Miller's stuff. It's a clever reminder that these small treasures are only found as often as they're lost.

Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities and Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed & Found Items from Around the World. Edited by Davy Rothbart. Fireside Paperback Original. $15.99. 234 pp.

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