Non-fiction books by contemporary actor/writer/comedian types have been all the rage for the past several years. Tina Fey, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Nick Offerman and Rainn Wilson are just a few of the celebrity humorists who’ve translated their unique comedic gifts into bestsellers. For his part, John Hodgman has already written a handful of books such as The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require that have focused mostly on “fake facts” (the satirical bent of which was no doubt inspired by his earlier gig as a contributing writer on The Daily Show).
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches is Hodgman’s first crack at something resembling a memoir, and it’s a refreshing change of pace. Hodgman is a gifted – and very funny – storyteller, and the stories that make up Vacationland are focused primarily on his vacation homes in bucolic Western Massachusetts and Maine, the latter state possessing the motto that makes up the book’s title. Predictably, Hodgman has a lot of fun needling the state of Maine for its somewhat oddly incongruous subtitle. “This is either a cruel joke, or maybe simply an error,” Hodgman writes. “It may be that Maine is called Vacationland because when Maine was invented, we didn’t really know what a ‘vacation’ was yet.”
Hodgman, who was born and raised in the Boston suburb of Brookline and currently lives in Brooklyn, makes no secret in the book that the relatively inconsequential, real-life stories of an artistically and financially successful white middle-aged man are hardly what the world needs right now. When a public appearance of Hodgman’s was back-announced with “Ladies and gentlemen, the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman!” he called it “a painful but fair assessment”. What Hodgman excels at in Vacationland is the ability to tell a good story that doesn’t purport to be a sober life lesson, adding a healthy dollop of self-deprecation to nearly every anecdote.
Stories of ill-advised home improvement projects, character-building trips to town dumps, and father/daughter visits to Brooklyn cemeteries (yes, really) greatly outweigh the minute-yet-strangely-fascinating brushes with fame that someone in Hodgman’s position obviously encounters from time to time. When he tells the occasional story of a somewhat-famous artist living nearby, it’s usually from the point of view of a fan who quietly geeks out at being in the same room as these artistic giants, whether it’s consuming edible marijuana while stacking river rocks with cult musician and neighbor Jonathan Coulton or enjoying a home cooked meal with Pixies singer/songwriter Black Francis. The point of the stories is not the fame and notoriety that Hodgman enjoys, but rather the somewhat “normal” life he’s able to eke out despite being occasionally recognized as the PC in the “Mac vs. PC” commercials. It’s a position he feels lucky to enjoy. “Money cannot buy happiness,” he writes, “but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constant worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future, and the ability to be generous.”
Near the end of Vacationland, the “title chapter” provides an unusual yet welcome contrast to the book’s offbeat humor. Recalling the final months of his mother’s life before she succumbed to lung cancer in 2000, Hodgman writes lovingly and eloquently about he and his father taking care of his mother, eating meals around her bed, hosting small groups of visitors, all the while taking stock of his own life. “When I kissed her head and smelled her scalp one more time, near the end of spring and the beginning of summer” he writes, “she was delusional. She comforted me. ‘Thank you for visiting me,’ she said. ‘Lie down. Get some rest. This is your vacation.'” It’s moments like these — forcing a middle-aged man into not only accepting whatever pitfalls and sadness befalls him, but compelling him move on, enjoy life, and keep finding the humor in the everyday details — that give Vacationland its eloquent power,