John Hodgman is many things: Daily Show correspondent, a “PC”, podcast guest and host, internet judge, former literary agent, and generally droll New England weirdo. He wrote several books prior to Vacationland, and all of those books were collections of “facts”. I say “facts”, as that is what he might say as well: Hodgman (with the help of Jonathan Coulton) created three full books of completely made-up facts that he presented as being VERY true. They are a weird delight, and sometimes they are correct, like when he “created” a furry lobster that turned out to be a real thing, but I digress. Going off of his past creations, I was expecting another irreverent and enjoyable flip-through. My expectations were (mostly) incorrect! His humor is completely intact and frequently laugh-til-you-hiccup enjoyable, but he also peels back the layers of his cultivated persona to give a deep and true look at his real-life experiences.
Vacationland is a memoir more than anything else; Hodgman has a little midlife crisis moment while writing in a used bookstore, “a place where books go to die”, and he frames the story around his acquisition of not one, but TWO vacation homes- a situation that he does not jump into on purpose. He questions his career, shares his childhood, gives some ridiculous details of his time at Yale, gets really into weed as a 45 year old man, and plays with unfortunate facial hair choices:
“A mustache sends a visual message to the mating population of Earth that says, “No thank you. I have procreated. My DNA is out in the world, and so I no longer deserve physical affection. Instead, it is time for me to turn away from sex and toward new pursuits, the classic weird dad hobbies such as puns, learning trivia about bridges and wars, and dreaming about societal collapse and global apocalypse.”
We learn about his attempts at being cool as a teen in Brookline (lots of jazz violin and fedora wearing), his jaunts into Western Massachusetts with his parents who just wanted to “do nothing near a bog” on the weekends, his job counting cars in traffic while an undergrad at Yale, and his unplanned and uncertain charge into adulthood in NYC. He speaks frankly about his misadventures as a homeowner: he didn’t know that you need to order more propane, he leaves trash to liquefy in his garage because he is scared of getting in trouble for going to the dump, and he let his septic system utterly fail- giving me extreme flashbacks to my time in college with six lovely but clueless roommates living in someone’s summer house during the off-season. He focuses frequently on change and uncertainty with his traditional dry aplomb:
“There are transitions in life whether we want them or not. You get older. You lose jobs and loves and people. The story of your life may change dramatically, tragically, or so quietly you don’t even notice. It’s never any fun, but it can’t be avoided. Sometimes you just have to walk into the cold dark water of the unfamiliar and suffer for a while. You have to go slow, breathe, don’t stop, get your head under, and then wait. And soon you get used to it. Soon the pain is gone and you have forgotten it because you are swimming, way out here where it’s hard and where you were scared to go, swimming sleekly through the new.”
Don’t panic, though. This isn’t some navel-gazing woe-is-me midlife crisis. He speaks frankly about insecurity, loss, privilege, and death. He takes many jabs at himself as a straight white man of wealth and (moderate) fame, but it is clear that he cares deeply for humankind as a whole. I did not open this book (well, tune into the audio recording) expecting thoughtful sections on privilege, bullying, and the Black Lives Matter movement, but they were present, well said, and I am grateful for their inclusion.
Oh, and yes, don’t worry- there is plenty of vacation talk. While this book is full of surprises, there is no false advertising here! Come for quaint tourist trap tales, but stay for this universal truth: “the bottom of every lake is a Lovecraftian hellscape.”