What in the world is going on in Sean Penn's new novel?
Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, is an intently trippy read. Here’s a book that expects you to scratch your head in disbelief, to marvel at the sheer insanity of the action, to delight in stream-of-consciousness non sequiturs. It’s ostensibly for fans of unwieldy cult classics by the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Hunter S. Thompson — for readers eager to dig through satirical madness for deep and surprising truths.
The slim novel was originally released as a slimmer, mysterious audiobook back in 2016, with Penn narrating under the pseudonym Pappy Pariah; it’s now been built out as an encompassing work meant more clearly to comment on The Times. It features broad, unsubtle references to our current president. It camps outside of a chaotic, near-dystopian scene at the Republican National Convention. It even features a meeting between Bob, a Boomer who works a variety of small jobs — including that of part-time assassin — and a figure closely modeled on El Chapo named Fletcher. (Penn infamously interviewed El Chapo — unbeknownst to, and then to the great irritation of, the Obama administration — prior to the drug lord’s arrest in Mexico. He also has praised Hugo Chavez.)
As for the language, Penn tries to drive the points home in ambitious prose — but his stylistic flourishes feel sticky and overwrought. (“Scottsdale’s dry climate contradicts the clammy calescent of New Guinean condensation” is a real sentence.) And sometimes, they expose some of Penn’s more conspiratorial messages. One scene takes place in the aftermath of the shooting of five police officers in Dallas; “Bob” comes to the realization that “the media had effectively encouraged the killing of cops” after they “reflexively pre-convicted [cops] of racial rancor by Ruger in a country rife with rule of law” — a mouthful, to be sure, complete with excessive alliteration and undergirded by some specious theory.
Penn, like Bob, is a Baby Boomer, and it’s hard not to read the book as his loud, angry, absurdist response to the state of the world. Bob is his bizarro vessel, a man of deadly potential and antisocial behavior who nonetheless communicates ideas meant to be considered wise, if not prophetic. “America, it seems to Bob, is no longer that beautiful girl who’d birthed him,” Penn’s narration reads. “But instead, the ghost of a girl he’d never known.” It’s a line that matches, uneasily, with Bob’s frequent, indulgent fantasies of his beautiful girlfriend — an example of the book’s woozy gender politics. (More on that in a moment.)
Bob especially comes to embody Penn, a man who’s seethed against the status quo a time or two in his lifetime, when it comes to politics — and notably, Bob’s ranting accelerates at the novel’s climax. While surreal details spun from Penn’s life are sprinkled throughout, such as the very strange fiesta with the El Chapo stand-in — Fletcher speaks in a not-so-hilariously clunky dialect and bonds intimately with Bob — it does feel as if, the deeper into this story we get, the more Penn emerges. Bob’s idiosyncratic qualities give way to sweeping, outraged social commentary; the notion of a narrative is all but dismissed.
Near the book’s end, Bob writes a letter to the book’s U.S. president — referred to as “the landlord,” unmistakably based on Trump. (Unless “the violently immature seventy-year-old boy-man with money and French vanilla cotton candy hair” could be in reference to someone else.) In it, Bob throws in every buzzword that’s been recited to numbing effect across cable news: “alternative facts,” “Russia,” “NRA,” and on. He calls the “Landlord” illegitimate, narcissistic, and reflexive. It goes on and on; Penn seems to have recorded every negative thought he’s ever had about the president and assembled them into a ragey manifesto. But if the intent is to set the stage for catharsis, the effect is more shrill — and, well, a little hypocritical.
Because so much of Bob’s political messaging so closely resembles Penn’s, it’s difficult to distinguish the two. Bob goes to great pains to emasculate Trump. He gloats that “a million women so dwarfed your penis-edency on the streets of Washington and around the world on the day of your piddly inauguration.” More dramatically, Bob pretty much calls for Trump’s assassination before quipping, “Sir, I challenge you to a duel. Tweet me, bitch. I dare you.”
Then there’s the epilogue, a poem written by Penn which touches on a range of recent news stories — the shooting in Las Vegas, the tension with North Korea, the crisis in Puerto Rico. He gets to #MeToo as well, slamming the movement: He mourns the loss of “laughs,” calling, “Are you out there Louis C.K.?” He asks, “Was it really in our interest to trample Charlie Rose?” Then he gets to the meat of his complaint: “And what’s with this ‘Me Too’? This infantilizing term of the day… Is this a toddlers’ crusade? Reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child’s play? A platform for accusation impunity? Due process has lost its sheen?”
This is all a little rich, given Penn’s own past. (He was accused of, though never arrested for, assaulting Madonna during their marriage, which he denies. In 2015, Madonna confirmed his rejection of those claims, saying while she and Penn had “heated arguments” in their marriage, he “never struck” her. In 2016, after Penn sued him, Lee Daniels publicly apologized for accusing the actor of hitting women.) It’s also, along with the rest of the novel, rather confounding. For what it’s worth, Penn — who, don’t forget, is a very astute and mindful actor (who says he’s “not in love” with acting anymore) — knows his latest form of artistic expression and views on the world aren’t for everyone.
“Some people are going to get this book and some people are… not going to get this book,” Penn told CBS Sunday Morning recently. “Some people, I think, will really enjoy it, others will loathe it. And… and that really is what I’d like to say about me, you know?”
Penn’s worldview is embedded in Bob Honey, but at the end of the day, he’s not an aloof, menacing fictional character living in a dystopia. (Well, not just yet, anyway.) He’s a celebrity, and it’s that celebrity which has allowed him to publish his musings on all that’s gone wrong for all to read. Penn has a lot to be angry about and wants to make it known; Bob Honey is a nearly pure, reactionary vent. Fortunately, that’s en vogue right now. Indeed, it’s this strange, flawed world which so grates on Penn that has ushered his strange, flawed book into existence. There, finally, is something for him to cheer.