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John Hodgman's 'Vacationland' Is Comfortably Fearless

With Vacationland John Hodgman moves away from comedy and tries a new approach: humble reality.

Vacationland
John Hodgman

Viking

Oct 2017

Other

John Hodgman is an American comedian. That sounds decidedly monumental, but what does it really mean? I certainly don't have that answer, and I'm not sure Hodgman has it either. I'm not sure if he cares much to be honest. He's really just out there trying to get by however he can, and so far it seems like comedy has been his most marketable skill. Either as a writer or as an actor, he's a ham, a caricature, a character with strange eccentricities. It's just what has worked for him so far. With his new memoir, Vacationland, however, Hodgman tries a new approach: humble reality. He's still funny at times, but mostly it's a very honest assessment of his place in the world and how he got there. It's a refreshing take on the memoir.

Hodgman has been toiling for years. If you don't know who he is, you have probably been exposed to him at some point without realizing. He's guested on TV shows (Community, Bored to Death, Flight of the Conchords), he's been a regular character on The Daily Show (The Deranged Billionaire), and most recognizably, he was the PC to Justin Long's Mac in the long-running PC vs. Mac advertising campaign. He's also written three books prior to Vacationland: The Areas of My Expertise (Penguin 2005), More Information than You Require (Penguin, 2009), and That Is All (Penguin, 2012). It's nearly unbelievable to say, but these books are part of a nearly thousand page trilogy of fake almanacs. That's right, fake information laid out in quite a serious structure, to the tune of a thousand pages. Within these books you would find entries titled as such: "History's Worst Men's Haircuts", "Seven Hundred Hobo Names", and "Answers to Your Questions About the Mole-Men". Like I said, he's a ham.

As far as toiling goes, that seems to be one of the major themes of the memoir. The book is divided into little slices of his life, but within each slice he often stops to reflect on something he has absolutely no idea how to work, whether it's his inexplicable fame or how to keep up on basic household maintenance. At one point his family begins hearing a terrible whirring sound coming from their yard. They endured this for a week, thinking it was tree frogs for some reason, before they figured out it was their septic tank failing. Later, he recounts an encounter with an invader raccoon: "As I yelled, it turned its head and eyed me with such causal contempt that I apologized to it." A large chunk of the book is a workout in humility. One can only hope more humans would be this honest with themselves.

As far as honesty goes, Vacationland has another interesting facet: Hodgeman digs deep into racial and economic divisions in America and comes to a very simple conclusion: he is privileged. It's the first time I've seen such a clear-eyed and humble exploration of the topic from someone outside of a barroom, to be honest. For one, from the beginning he is up front about how his upbringing gave him opportunities many never experience. The guy grew up with summer homes, so he's already got a good chunk of the country beat out, easy. Later, as he is sitting on porch of his rural Maine home reading from the internet (an enlightening, ironic setting I'm sure the author included just to once again show his privilege), he begins to ponder how the internet has helped bring so much to light that was previously hidden, especially someone so privileged that wasn't truly looking: "…if I closed my laptop, I could make it all vanish." As he ponders, he satirizes the White Lives Matter folk: "How dare you suggest I am not the hero of the story? I am a straight white male! I have been right at the center of this culture for a long time, and now you ask me to be quiet for a few days to listen to someone else's experience? ...It's as if all of Whiteness was going through a desperate midlife crisis." He never digs into solutions or what he may be doing about it, but it is fresh to hear a writer properly place themselves in the system without carrying a chip on their shoulder.

If there is a bad taste to be left by the memoir, it would be his overly apologetic approach. He begins the book by saying, "I apologize for my beard", and it is a little patchy to be sure, but we should accept Hodgman as he is. He need not apologize. Later he states: "While I may evade particular details and change some names… the rest is the awful truth about my dumb thoughts and feelings. I am sorry for this. It is all I have left." Hey, we're all stuck with our flawed selves. At least Hodgman had the guts to wrestle it out in his mind -- with thousands of readers in tow.

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