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Self-Conscious, Uncertain...

Privilege can still be amusing, if only awkwardly, John Hodgman finds in new book of firsthand stories

Writing the few reviews of comedy material that I still write, I now realize that I gravitate mostly to the artists that are the most like me – middle aged white guys. So I realize my critical point of view has probably narrowed, become myopic. Fittingly, here’s a take on a book whose author is also self-conscious about his privileged position.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman (see interview, 6/14/13), published October 24 by Viking, is a collection of loose breezy essays containing observations on the surreal nature of vacation properties the author owns in New England (Western Massachusetts and Maine). That includes his strange guilty feelings of owning such property in the first place (made possible by his successes in television and advertising), and the eccentricity of neighbors and townspeople around those locations.

This book doesn’t have the intricate complexity and depth of Hodgman’s footnote- and chart-studded “Complete World Knowledge” trilogy of fake facts, “The Areas of My Expertise,” “More Information Than You Require” and “That is All,” but it does have the same spirit and sensibility as those works. There’s a unique imaginative point of view at work in Hodgman’s descriptive prose in “Vacationland” that was also present in those books, published between 2005 and 2011.

However, “Vacationland” strips away all the layout features that added another dimension to that trilogy – characteristics that were perhaps the product of a younger mind with more energy. Here, Hodgman revels in being an outsider when returning to New England for vacations – again, both superior and inferior at the same time, especially in Maine, where he and his family, whose home base is Park Slope, Brooklyn, are just more despised visitors “from away” as the locals call them.

Hodgman knows the absurdity of his own notoriety from his TV career, which he notes at one point in “Vacationland,” is likely to soon recede from “actual famous” to just “book famous.” Every anecdote about being recognized finds him reacting with some disarming remark such as “this must be surprising for you” – or, conversely, being willing to join fans for a smoke or a college campus party.

“Vacationland” is mostly split in half between Hodgman’s Western Massachusetts vacation followed by subsequent Maine vacations. The eccentricities of year-round Maine residents are a perfect match – both with his ability to portray those quirks and to satirize his own helplessness compared to resourceful and hardy Maine natives.

Despite all the arm’s length, dry-as-Maine-firewood New England humor, Hodgman does relate a moving moment or two when describing his mother’s passing away when he was 29. It’s this beating heart beneath all the self-deprecating wit and mock haughty superiority (those tones would seem to be diametrically opposed, but Hodgman can deploy them in the same piece at once – maybe even the same sentence) that makes “Vacationland” an amusing and worthwhile read.















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