Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches
By John Hodgman
Viking. 257 pp. $25
Maine, a state that has for many years relied on tourism, is a contradiction: An extremely insular place, it depends on the curiosity of outsiders. For many writers, Maine means a simpler, sparer kind of existence, a place to practice "deliberate living," like Thoreau's cabin but with more lobster.
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, a collection of essayistic stories from the self-described "minor television personality" John Hodgman, plays along with these themes.
Since 2000, Hodgman has made his way as a humorist and storyteller at the crossroads of Brooklyn literariness, podcasting, and nerd culture. He also played the nebbish "P.C." in Apple ads. As a kind of Garrison Keillor for Gen Xers, he has fashioned a slightly exaggerated version of himself as a public persona and written a very funny trilogy of faux almanacs of "fake facts" in his Areas of My Expertise books.
If Areas of My Expertise reveled in the weirdness of the nearly true, Vacationland pauses at the strangeness of the ordinary. Hodgman is great at confronting the surrealism of adult life, always finding his way to a stranger truth; reconciling his fantasies with broader, more consistent realities - meaning death, mostly.
Overall, the collection has an air of comfortable resignation. Aging 30- and 40-somethings of a certain demographic like Hodgman generally face the reconciliation of the values, identities, and totems of their youth with the onset of middle age, homeownership, and, perhaps most of all, parenthood.
Such a reconciliation means you must face your own privilege. But even the ironic reiteration of one's advantages can seem a kind of aloofness.
In a fine but somewhat strained essay near the end of the book, he writes, "It wasn't just aging guys like me anymore; it was as if all of Whiteness was going through a desperate midlife crisis." Hodgman writes. But is he really a spokesperson for the typical white man? He isn't especially typical (we can't all be minor television personalities), and it's also unclear that an explicitly personal reckoning is what we need now.
Personal essay-style confrontations with privilege can, at their best, raise new questions, propose new solutions; at their worst, they simply fret. There are more new questions than fretting here, but the neurosis of comfortable people hardly changes whether they are in the beautiful city or on the beautiful coastline.
Charles Thaxton's reviews and criticism have appeared in the New Inquiry, Full Stop, and WBUR.org. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.