I enjoyed John Hodgman’s Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches on an emotional level. Maybe that’s too obvious a statement, but I say this upfront simply to warn you that I have no pretense of objective evaluation in this review. I was and am moved by this book. It spoke to me in my current context (entering my late 30s worried about family and future) and asked the questions I ask myself. I found the book to be insightful, moving, and funny, but I’m not sure that it is (or wants to be) universally so. Okay, enough lame caveats. I liked the book and you should too. Not sure why I’m worrying about the book review police throwing me in book review jail.
Vacationland is a fast read, but leaves a lasting impression. It gave me one of those magical time-travel evenings in which I sat down to read and suddenly five hours were gone and I stared at the final page thinking, “wait, how did you do that?” Those experiences, at their best, leave me feeling fundamentally changed in some way. It’s also the kind of book that, once finished, prompted me to sit with the big questions and leave my warm house on a cold, damp night for a rambling 1AM drive to think about the nature of human endeavor and impermanence. Am I selling this as a fun book yet? Because it is. It is a fun book. It’s just not fun merely for the sake of fun like many of Hodgman’s earlier works (which I also enjoyed). Vacationland is fun in an honest, real life sort of way that marries silliness with tragedy and pain with absurdity. It is, in my opinion, what grown-up American humor should be at this moment in our history, a moment when earnestness and sincerity seem to be on the ropes at the highest levels of government and public life. This book is not one man’s truth used as a cudgel to beat back any opposition. It is an essay in the original sense of the word, a work of trying, a strenuous attempt to find a truth -personal or universal. It isn’t hard to understand how in the current political/social context, Hodgman isn’t interested in throwing more fake facts onto the pile. You sense him living with the question of, “okay, what now” in these pages, and that’s a question that resonates with most of us.
The last point I want to make is that Vacationland is one of those books that works (in part) because its author is just good company. John Hodgman has a voice and knows how to use it. John is brilliant and observant and self-deprecating and aware of his own nonsense. He can go from truly poetic to ridiculous in the span of a sentence and the tension between those peaks and valleys creates an enjoyable narrative rhythm.
This book made me cry. It made me laugh at surprising moments. It made me want to walk out onto the sharp-edged Maine beaches of my own uncomfortable questions and wade out into the nickel-gray water and find myself stronger and more whole from the experience.