by John Hodgman
Published 2017 by Viking
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0735224803
By Noah Sanders
John Hodgman has always seemed an artist overly consumed with his own fake identity. From his days as a PC to Justin Long’s Mac to his preening caricature on The Daily Show to his three books of fake facts, he’s played the part of an effete, impeccably dressed, highly opinionated nerd to the tee. It isn’t that Hodgman hasn’t nailed the character—one wouldn’t be judged for believing his on-screen persona to be his actual one—more that there has been a distancing lack of substance beneath the bespectacled facade of the character he’d created. Vacationland is a memoir of Hodgman’s past and present life in the overgrown backwaters of western Massachusetts and the windblown coastlines of rural Maine. In writing about his own life, Hodgman relinquishes the hold his self-created character had on him. His laconic musings on his life expose a truer, wiser, more poignant aspect to the author without sacrificing the wry, observational humor he has become so well known for. This is a book ably toeing the line of nerd-laced whimsy and the surprisingly sage wisdom of a mid-40s hipster, a book that hums with the melancholy rhythm of the inherent sadness to be had in the inevitable onset of age.
Vacationland feels as if Hodgman is coming to grips with his own descent into middle age. The first half of the book focuses on Hodgman’s childhood in the small, ramshackle cabin in Western Massachusetts the author and his family inherited when his mother passed, up through his college and post-college existence. Each, slightly self-contained chapter finds Hodgman progressing the narrative of his own existence—an educated, slightly pretentious rule-following nerd turned, well, older, more famous slightly pretentious, rule-following nerd—while exploring the lessons learned in his younger life and how they have affected who he has become. In “Mongering” the author digs into his post-collegiate life working as a temp at a publishing company, tearing the covers off proofs of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Hodgman, as most college grads are, was rife with idealism as he stepped into the real world, stuffed with the belief that regardless of the mundane nature of his life, he was making progress. “As I stamped each page away,” he writes, “a growing sense ate at me that I was no longer becoming something, but ending up as something.” Mixed amongst the humorous asides, fictional conversations and blatant nerdery, Hodgman finds space to convey this sort of everyman wisdom without it ever feeling like he’s spewing platitudes. Instead the wiser, less humorous aspects of the book give the reader a foothold into a rounder, more real, more human version of the author hereto yet revealed.
The essay “Vacationland” finds Hodgman lowering all of his comedic defenses, brushing aside his forays into the nuts-and-bolts facts about boat-building and the history of Maine and discussing his mother’s death. The author’s cynicism never flags in the piece: “What more is there to say than it was traumatic a moment that breaks your life in half? That you never heal from it, and it blankets your life in sadness and fear forever? Not much, except for this little bit.” Hodgman’s mother passed from lung cancer at the age of 59 and “Vacationland” tracks the way her passing altered the course of his life. His descriptions of his last days with his mother are heart-breaking without being mawkish. “Slow death keeps you busy with chores and distractions” he writes of these final months. When she’s gone, he confesses, “There is no peace in dying, but there is peace when it’s done.” At the time of his mother’s passing, Hodgman was concluding his seventh year at a literary agency. His mother’s death pushed him to realize that his latent goals of being an author needed to come to the surface. “After a few weeks of caring for my mother at home,” he writes, “I noticed that none of my clients missed me. I was not essential to their lives at all.” As sad as the short piece is, it also shows what Hodgman is capable of when he abandons his comedic tendencies entirely. This is a heart-wrenching bit of writing, but one that glows with an inspiring warmth learned only from experiencing one of life’s great, inevitable sadnesses and the ability as a writer to pass that warmth forward.
Hodgman is a funny man, and this book is never lacking in humor. It is one of the book’s many charms that Hodgman is able to weave so effortlessly through the darker moments of his life while peppering them with his own gin-fueled adages and his particular brand of self-effacing humor. And it needs to be this way. From reading Vacationland, it’s evident that Hodgman is much more than the character he’s created, the character he’s hidden behind for so much of his professional life. Humor and book smarts are his natural impulses, but beneath this sheen of laughter and intelligence is a deep well of wit and emotion. A well Hodgman is able to tap, to distill into a book that offers advice and history, humor and sadness, poignancy and poise; a book that captures Hodgman in full.