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A tale of two summer homes - 'Vacationland: True Stories of Painful Beaches'

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Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Not in the case of John Hodgman, though. His latest book – “Vacationland: True Stories of Painful Beaches” (Viking, $25) – is a massive departure from his previous three books, a bestselling trio constructed entirely out of fake facts and imaginary trivia.

See, the stories in this book are true … and hilarious.


“Vacationland” is divided more or less evenly between Hodgman’s earlier days spent in western Massachusetts and his more recent experiences with his family on the coast of Maine. But regardless of which summer house he’s remembering at any given moment, his unique comedic voice rings out with a clever clarity that is very much unlike anything else you’re likely to read.

These stories – over a dozen in all – serve as a sort of primer on all things Hodgman. Taken together, one could argue that they illustrate not only who he is, but how he came to be that person. It’s a memoir of sorts, but a selective one; the end result is a portrait of a man who has never been entirely sure what it means to be an adult, but is muddling through nonetheless.

The book’s first half explores Hodgman’s relationship with his family’s home in western Massachusetts. These stories feature plenty of glimpses at the deliberately esoteric weirdo teen desperate to grow up that Hodgman was, but also digs into his young adulthood as his life’s path began its unexpected shift.

Whether it’s the self-inflicted existential crisis of “Dump Jail” – where he constructs elaborate tales to tell the guys at the dump if they ever ask - or the substance-enhanced idyll of cairn building in “Rocks on Top of Other Rocks,” Hodgman captures a sense of the very real absurdity that often accompanies being an adult. Maybe he explores the notion of his first “real” job and his first REAL job (“Mongering”); maybe he confronts the need to remain hip as he ages (“Daddy Pitchfork”).

Or maybe he’s relating the story where he meets Black Francis, lead singer of The Pixies and one of his personal musical idols, at the county fair and invites him and his family back to his house and shares cans of Diet Moxie with him – all while also contextualizing adulthood by way of broken septic systems and poop-filled silverware drawers (“Nerve Food”).

As for the second half, that’s when we learn more about the time Hodgman and his family have spent summering on the coast of Maine. This Hodgman has already achieved a fair degree of success, though he still has some questions with regards to this whole adulthood business.

For instance, there’s the story of how he and his wife accidentally bought a boat (“You Are Normal People”). “A Little Beyond the Safe Limits of Travel” is in many ways a follow-up to that story; it also captures the inherent spirit of Mainers beautifully. In “A Kingdom Property,” the stark differences between people and their attitudes are rendered with a clarity that is both funny and a little sad.

Hodgman also takes some shots at Maine humor in the piece titled … “Maine Humor”; the famed Perry’s Nut House makes an extended appearance as he breaks down the notion of Maine humor and denigrates the value of fudge.

And on and on and on. Every one of the stories in “Vacationland” charms with its honesty; even when relating true tale, Hodgman’s wit is unsurpassed. Anyone who has lived in these places will be struck by moments of recognition.

But it’s more than that. We’ve all questioned our choices as we stagger through adulthood; everyone has stretches where they feel as if they have no idea what they’re doing. Growing up – and growing older – is scary. Hodgman captures that feeling with exquisite precision. There’s weirdness at every turn, no matter where we are or who we’re with. John Hodgman understands that.

Look, these stories are funny. They’re REALLY funny. Frankly, you probably don’t need me to tell you that. What you might not expect, however, is what kind of heft they have. Even in the funniest moments, there are real feelings and real ideas being expressed. Hodgman finds ways to elicit a sense of pathos without ever losing that light of laughter. He shares hard truths as willingly as the easy ones. And he never once seems to forget just how lucky he is. It’s remarkable to read, an open window into a complex comedic psyche.

This book might not be everything that is John Hodgman, but everything it is is definitely real.

“Vacationland” is smart and snarky and occasionally raw. Hodgman’s narrative gifts are undeniable, and when combined with this kind of genuine feeling and truth, the end result is flat-out exceptional. It’s a beautiful balance of humor and heart – a book that’ll make you laugh, that’ll make you think … and that’ll ultimately make you glad you spent some time with John Hodgman.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 October 2017 08:32


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