John Hodgman has proven to be an exceptional humorist over the years. His Complete World Knowledge trilogy, in particular, is a biting read, loaded with fake facts and delectably obscure lists, that effectively indicates the former Daily Show correspondent’s strengths as a comic writer.
The new book Vacationland finds Hodgman operating in a new mode: memoir. The results are mixed in the way memoirs often are, even as it features his distinct voice and an unusual structure. It both falls victim to the genre’s trappings and maximizes on what can make it so uniquely powerful.
The book, opened by a melancholy introduction and bookended with a moving final story, is divided into two sections that each feature short vignettes. They represent the distinct “wildernesses” of his experiences with middle-age and take place at a pair of vacation houses — first his parents’ in rural Massachusetts, then the one located in his wife’s hometown of coastal Maine. Hodgman tells stories of his youth and adulthood, reflecting with refreshing bluntness on seemingly innocuous but ultimately pivotal moments from throughout his life.
Hodgman, known for his dry humor, is typically restrained and offbeat here; his stories tend to be meditative and cutting, peppered with touches of absurdity. Yet you can feel the author hitting up against the walls of the conventions of memoir as he revisits insubstantial anecdotes that fail to convey the sense of displacement which threads the book.
Hodgman is not a great descriptive writer — a fact he even (maybe) nods to when he cracks in a parenthetical, “I am good at describing stuff” — and so it’s often puzzling the extent to which the book relies on rote descriptions of his past: his post-college experience in therapy, his job as a cheesemonger, his initial encounters with “Maine Humor.” This is especially true of his (larger) first section, set predominantly in Massachusetts. No story falls completely flat, and Hodgman’s wit at least intermittently shines through. But the anecdotes tend to be too explanatory and process-heavy, without the sharpness or depth to prevent them from petering out. Indeed, some run for only a few pages, and yet they still can drag.
The beauty of Vacationland comes through when Hodgman isn’t bogged down by his genre’s conventions. The introduction, provocatively titled “The Bookkeeper for the Church of Satan,” is a wholly profound dissection of middle-age. He faces death by conceiving of the end of the world while memorably describing the “lone, black, tough, wire hairs” in his cheeks. He provides a deeply poignant take on fatherhood in a personal context, genuinely contending with his privilege as a straight white man, and nearly in the same breath offers an admirably thorough analysis of his decision to grow a beard.
Even better is the book’s brief in-between section dubbed only “The Middle.” Set at a graveyard, it’s a haunting story about the cemetery he and his daughter would frequent, passing by mourners and traversing the area in “all the odd and specific details that make a good ghost story.” This is a book very much about death — Coastal Maine is where Hodgman is convinced he’ll die — and it’s in this section that the fused notion of wilderness and mortality really comes alive.
Comic memoirs are hardly uncommon and the challenge Hodgman faces is, accordingly, a familiar one: to tell his own story in his own dynamic way. It’s a challenge that he meets with startling poignancy in some cases, and which proves insurmountable in others. It’s only when Hodgman gets away from the “painful beaches” of Massachusetts and Maine, and into the choppy waters of his own mind, that Vacationland presents a world worth sinking into. B-