I rarely laugh out loud when reading. No matter how funny the book is. I have a fine sense of humor and I recognize comedy. I acknowledge it in my head, I just don’t laugh. But John Hodgman’s new book Vacationland, made me laugh aloud multiple times. In public. While eating soup at Mariano’s.
Having said that, Vacationland might also be one of the most melancholy books I’ve ever read.
It’s possible you don’t recognize John Hodgman by his name. If you saw his picture you’d probably know him. He was a corespondent on John Stewart’s Daily Show and identified himself as a PC in a long running series of Apple commercials. He was great on the HBO series Bored to Death. All the while he was appearing on television, he was also writing. Between 2005 and 2011 he published three books filled with made up trivia and long ridiculous lists, The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That is All.
Now, he has left the list-making behind to reveal a little bit about himself. On the advice of comedian Mike Birbiglia, Hodgman staged a series of speaking engagements. In front of an audience, without a plan, he began to talk. He told stories from his life and whatever came up would form the basis of this book. He talked about his early life as a self sufficient only child growing up in New York. About the mouse and raccoon-overrun summer home on the edge of a bog in Massachusetts. About the experience of becoming a mid-level television personality. And about finding a home among people he feared would reject him.
As a writer hitting middle age, themes of aging and other realities of the human existence (by which I mean death) keep turning up. Whether it’s intentional or not, almost every chapter touches on the idea of mortality. Take this passage about canned goods for example.
“When you get a can of soup, the date printed on the bottom is a distant future, impossible to reach. To hold a can of tomato soup now, two full years past that date, was like holding a betrayal. You were supposed to last forever, I wanted to tell it.”
If that’s not a metaphor, then I don’t know what is. Even the title Vacationland comes from a short chapter in which Hodgman describes the heartbreaking weeks leading up to his mother’s death from lung cancer.
So what about this book obsessed with mortality could make me publicly laugh out loud over a bowl of southwest chicken chili? It’s hard to say. Hodgman is a kind of wizard, able to express a cool conceitedness while at the same time being self-effacing. Self-aware of his own pretensions. He is able to turn a phrase. He is also able to extend a sentence past the length of reason. And I agree with his opinion of fudge. “Can we now all agree, as adults, that fudge is repulsive?”
We can. It is.