A great deal of Kevin Smith’s appeal comes from the fact that he’s relatable and approachable in a way most celebrities aren’t. He’s written and directed prominent movies, worked with superstars, and built a devoted fandom that regularly pays just to watch him stand on a stage and tell stories about his life. And yet he comes across as a regular-type dude who loves comic books, hockey, pot, food, movies, sex, masturbation, and hanging out shooting the shit about all of the above with his friends. Amid the Hollywood world of manicured images and manufactured personalities, he defiantly projects an image of an average Jersey homeboy who’s not only unashamed about his lowbrow tastes, but ready to discuss them with geeky, detailed enthusiasm. And on top of all that, he’s turned those tastes into a profitable career.
It helps that he’s charismatic, and can be a terrific storyteller—qualities even he acknowledges in his otherwise endlessly self-deriding new book Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From A Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good. In spite of the title, actual life advice is thin on the ground in Tough Sh*t, and the few suggestions Smith does offer come from a basic, familiar template: Believe in yourself, follow your dreams, life is short so don’t waste it, commit to what you want to do, think positive. Often, these ideas aren’t even stated overtly: Readers might get the message “It’s better to innovate than to imitate,” but Smith presents that idea by musing about hockey, and the importance of anticipating where the puck is going to be, not going wherever it was last.
Tough Sh*t doesn’t contain a template for success; it’s more a series of stories about Smith’s experiences achieving his, laced with a hefty dose of “What did I do to deserve this awesome life?” bafflement. It’s loosely, anecdotally written, just another segment in Smith’s career-long continuum of from-the-hip storytelling, the one that powers his podcasts and previous books like My Boring-Ass Life and the print podcast compilation Shootin’ The Sh*t With Kevin Smith. It never feels like he has a plan. He’s just trying to figure out how he ended up where he is, then process his life into fortune-cookie wisdom for the masses.
Not that there’s anything wrong with focusing more on entertaining readers than counseling them. But Smith’s entertainment, as always, is meant for a specific audience, one with a taste for adolescent raunch. Though Tough Sh*t’s coyly censored title is doubtless a concession to public bookshelves and mainstream publications that might review it, it still comes across as eye-rollingly ironic, given the book’s profound commitment to graphicness. Smith opens by dedicating the book separately to his wife and to her asshole. He starts his first chapter by dwelling on his dad’s testicles at length. (“Though if you could ask my father, he’d likely admit that while having his balls in print is flattering, having his balls in my mother’s mouth was way better.”) His point is that everybody started life as a squirt of semen, so just being born makes everyone a winner. His dedication to reaching self-affirmation in the most puerile way possible (“You beat sock drawers full of dead cum that didn’t have a chance coming out of the gate.”) amounts to a screening process at the beginning of the book: No one who makes it through those first thesaurus-exploring descriptions of his parents’ genitals is likely to find the rest of the book problematic.
At least, not until he gets to the late chapters where he illustrates his wife’s patient, giving nature by describing a time when she bent over to let him stare at her anus while he masturbated on the back of her leg, all because she was getting ready for an event and wasn’t in the mood for sex.
Still, the bulk of Tough Sh*t is less dedicated to shock language and more aimed at illustrating Smith’s life. He tells stories from childhood and skims briefly across the well-covered first decade or so of his filmmaking career, from Clerks through Jersey Girl. Some parts of the last five years get more attention than others, and some bear more analysis: The story of him getting kicked off a Southwest Airlines plane for being, as he’s consistently put it, “too fat to fly,” is retold in great detail, down to reprinting many of the angry tweets he sent the airline afterward. But he doesn’t say anything particularly new about the situation, and his wrath and dedication to his first-person experience seems more vindictive at this point than informative. He has a right to be vindictive, given the experience, but the repetition just drags readers along on a trip they may have already taken several times at this point.
He’s more revealing about the film industry, particularly about how marketing limitations and Judd Apatow-fueled expectations sank Zack And Miri Make A Porno, and how that experience led to his auctioning-Red State-to-himself-at-Sundance stunt. Even his explanation about what he was trying to accomplish with Red State—which he saw as a Quentin Tarantino-esque movie that regularly changed gears so audiences couldn’t anticipate it—is helpful, both for decoding a problematic film and for providing insight into Smith’s aesthetic and his desire to stretch himself.
But Tough Sh*t isn’t a professional memoir any more than it’s an advice book. It’s just about presenting the Kevin Smith perspective on an assortment of events, whether he’s sniping at critics (both professional film critics and people who’ve personally offended him with unwise words, like Neil Patrick Harris) or reporting how he and his wife got together via unprotected sex when he had an open wound on his penis. Smith’s lack of internal censor or apparent caution can be gratifying: He’s surprisingly frank about the terrible experience of directing sulky, disengaged “emo bitch” Bruce Willis on Cop Out. He’s similarly frank about his long relationship with Harvey Weinstein, praising Weinstein’s early innovation and lamenting how his priorities have changed.
That unabashed directness remains a major draw for Smith fans, who also aren’t likely to be bothered by the book’s erratic nature. Narratively and tonally, it’s all over the place, delving into minor events in vast detail while skimming across major ones, and wallowing in synonyms for “fat and lazy” on one page while bragging on the next. But that’s all part of Smith’s signature ability to remain brashly confident even while putting himself down. Generally, Tough Sh*t skims the surface, falling back on he-said-then-I-said reportage while avoiding deeper insight. It’s a breezy, entertaining, crass-but-funny read that wouldn’t necessarily benefit by diving deeper into Smith’s head. But if he really wants to write an advice book, maybe next time he can focus more on how he maintains that defiant, unabashed fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-me attitude in the face of his own self-deprecation, and how he’s managed to stay comfortably himself in an industry where few people do. For all he’s done as a writer, a filmmaker, and a public personality, that’s one of his most striking accomplishments.