Long before Kellyanne Conway popularized the term “alternative facts,” writer (and actor and comic) John Hodgman eked out a living passing off lies as truths. His public image centers on his ability to preen snobbishly — in print or in person — while spouting outrageous falsehoods with the confidence and authority of a professor sporting elbow patches on herringbone sleeves. Yes, of course a yeti has been living in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park since 1971. And, indeed, we should always keep in mind that “white wine” is simply a general term for wine made from “ghost grapes.”
In Hodgman’s new book, Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, the Daily Show favorite notes that the key demographic for his earlier work, including three books featuring gobs of his trademark comic malarkey, consisted of “strange and luminous thirteen-year-olds.” Why wouldn’t this be so? For someone moving from childhood to adulthood, what could be more appealing than forgetting about the legitimacy of facts and figures, and instead believing and spreading as gospel any old horse-shit that pops into your head? (If you need Exhibit A for my point, look at our Adolescent-in-Chief, who — in a moment to make heads across the globe spin — noted recently that it’s entirely possible he is the person who coined the word “fake.”)
Copy on the flap of the Vacationland dust jacket suggests that Donald Trump’s ascendancy had something to do with Hodgman’s decision to leave false facts behind and instead concentrate on truth. The allusion to “True Stories” in the book’s subtitle is not meant ironically. This is a collection of interrelated personal essays free of yetis and ghost grapes. Yes, occasionally, Hodgman can barely resist the urge to offer up some dubious “fact.” Take for instance, the word “Vacationland” itself, which happens to be Maine’s official state slogan. He does not declare that Maine’s slogan is actually “Putting the Spite in Hospitality Since 1820.” But he suggests that it should be so.
The book is divided into halves, the first of which is, arguably, a bit more breezy and jokey than the second. But, make no mistake: Vacationland is not intended as a snarky laugh-in. While Hodgman’s prose is leavened with his dry yet goofy humor, at base it’s serious stuff. He describes reading some of these stories publicly to see how they would play, and notes that the pal who introduced him would herald his “white privilege comedy.” A good deal of the book involves the author’s soul-searching about the unfairness inherent in his own good fortune. Hodgman is a guy who made it through Yale without incurring personal debt and who later made big, easy money in his role as stodgy “PC” opposite Justin Long’s cool “Mac” in a long-running series of Apple commercials. There is something perversely comic about cursing one’s own own dumb luck. But the unjustness of his happy fate is no joke for Hodgman. It apparently makes him genuinely gloomy — and infinitely uncomfortable:
This country is founded on some very noble ideals, but also some very big lies. One is that everyone has a fair chance at success. Another is that rich people have to be smart and hardworking or else they wouldn’t be rich. Another is that if you’re not rich, don’t worry about it, because rich people aren’t really happy. I am the white male living proof that all of that is garbage. The fast degree to which my mental health improved once I had the smallest measure of economic security immediately unmasked this shameful fiction.
There are some funny/sad moments in the book’s early stories that give us glimpses of the young Hodgman, a pretentious Boston-area boy, uneasy in his own pale skin yet somehow confident enough in his own “specialness” to go to school wearing a fedora and bolo tie and toting a briefcase: “What I really wanted was to skip adolescence altogether and jump to the life of a sexless, middle-age bachelor that I yearned for. And I succeeded.”
The strongest story in Vacationland’s first half is “Daddy Pitchfork,” which deals with the author’s visit to a college campus somewhere in the American South where he is to be given a Samuel Clemens honor. The comedy in the first pages of the piece is rooted partly in the fact that Hodgman knows very little about the life and work of Clemens, despite his Ivy League literary training. ”Professor Mark,” the “Twainologist” who arranges the visit, assures Hodgman that it doesn’t matter — he customarily uses money earmarked for the event to bring in comedians he personally enjoys. “Once I realized we were both opportunistic frauds, I felt much more comfortable,” Hodgman confesses.
The piece develops into something with the complexity and delicacy of a vintage John Updike story. Hodgman makes acquaintance with an old buddy of Professor Mark’s, along with the buddy’s son, a student at the college. Father and son turn out to be two Southern sweet peas in a pod. They’re both obsessed with trends in alternative music, and they chat together comfortably about cannabis use (the event happens to takes place on 4/20). Hodgman intuits that the professor has become jealous of his friend’s son.
‘I thought I had come here to deliver a Samuel Clemens Address!’ I wanted to say. ‘Not to be a wedge in some dude’s best friend love triangle.’
But a wedge Hodgman becomes. The rest of the story plays out to a satisfying epiphany, albeit a bittersweet one.
The second half of the book includes such serious bits as Hodgman’s meditations on his mother’s death and a description of his son’s bullying by some preppy children in a Maine rowing class. In fact, much of the action in the final chapters takes place in Maine, where the author and his family have spent considerable time in recent years. His wife’s family had roots there, and she pushed him to give the area a chance. But the punishing climate and flinty citizenry make Hodgman feel more than ever like an imposter. And the white-guilt thing becomes particularly aggravated in the very white Vacationland State. In “So Thin Is the Skin of My People,” he recalls watching an older black couple seated on the porch of an ice cream parlor in Bar Harbor watching the passersby: a “parade of well-heeled Caucasians.” The image of the isolated pair underscores, for Hodgman, the privilege he’s been able to take for granted.
All of this self-flagellation would grow tiresome if tossed off blithely. But Hodgman seems to sail well beyond the blithe. At the end of the book, he suggests that as he grows older he is learning lessons about maintaining integrity in a tough, Barnum-and-Bailey world: “Sometimes you have to walk into the cold dark water of the unfamiliar and suffer for a while,” he contends. “You have to go slow, breathe, don’t stop, get your head under, and then wait. And soon you get used to it.” (Mark that: not an ounce of snark.)
Unchecked fraudulence has been a part of Hodgman’s comic shtick since he emerged as a humorist. It’s been there in his acting roles, too, in such vehicles as Bored to Death and Mozart in the Jungle. It will probably always be part of his bag of tics. With Vacationland, though, he wears something much different from the smarmy, caca-spouting attitude we have come to love and loathe. It’s a good look on him.