After writing three very funny books of fake trivia, esoteric lists, and other myriad and delightful bullshit, John Hodgman—the multi-hyphenate podcast host, author, former Apple pitchman, Daily Show correspondent, internet storyteller, etc.—has taken a sharp hard turn into truth. His latest book, Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches, tackles such varied, very real topics as the secret perils of municipal garbage delivery and the strange social gauntlet of boat ownership, describing them with the same lyrical, digression-filled warmth he once applied to presidential dream thieves and planet-cracking Century Toads. The subject matter is vastly different—give or take a story here or there about internet troubadour Jonathan Coulton being devoured by witches—but the mind producing it is unmistakably the same, albeit in a more weathered, grounded, and sometimes sadder form.
Structurally, Vacationland divides itself into long meditations on two vacation homes: the one originally owned by Hodgman’s parents in Western Massachusetts, and one purchased later in life in his wife’s native Maine. The book’s two halves correspond to the character of the territories they contain: the first is warmer and more chaotic, centering on memories of its author’s younger life, while the second is more desolate, even as Hodgman is careful to keep a home fire burning against the onset of the coming cold. In both, a current of naked honesty prevails; the writer obscures the names of many of his friends, neighbors, and family members, but lays his numerous anxieties (“Is today the day the men at the garbage dump realize I have been lying to them about living in this township for years?” “What future minefields of fear am I planting for my kids?”) bare for readers to relate to.
If there’s a grand thesis being built toward, Hodgman is wise enough to keep it obscured. Vacationland is divided into bite-sized anecdotes (adapted from Hodgman’s stand-up/storytelling tour of the same name), unified by a tone that’s simultaneously melancholy and amused. When it achieves profundity, it does so by avoiding profundities; in many ways, this is a book about death, but it rarely tackles the subject head-on, instead sketching in the details of the beautiful, silly, time-wasting minutiae and pleasures we all use to run out our personal clocks.
It’s also very funny, albeit not in the same ways as The Areas Of My Expertise and its follow-up almanacs of lies. The pleasures here are in the roundabout ways Hodgman tackles a sentence, and his frank assessment of topics like “When is the right time for a man to grow a shitty little beard?”
All men, I think, wonder who the secret man that lives inside them is and whom they will meet in the mirror when they stop shaving. They wonder if that man is better than the one they know. If that elder sage or fantasy wizard or feral mountain man will be wiser than they, and when they are lost, if that dude will light up his staff and guide them through the Dwarven mines and out of the wilderness.
Based on the overall effect, the secret man inside me is the part-time bookkeeper for the Church Of Satan.
Vacationland is not a laugh riot; its spine carries a little too much weariness for the same flights of fancy that dotted Hodgman’s earlier books. And there are times when its love affair with the day-to-day can overwhelm humor and melancholy alike. But it’s also the clearest expression of its author’s voice—self-effacing without being ashamed, self-aware about its own pretensions, and always welcoming to his readers—that Hodgman has produced to date. Setting it down (and marveling, briefly, at the gorgeous vintage jacket design, by Aaron James Draplin), you’re left with the sense that you’ve just finished a long, pleasant trip into the author’s mind. As far as travel destinations go, it’s a welcome one, a warm harbor against cold winds.