John Hodgman is a notorious liar. In his previous three books, the most recent being 2011's That Is All, the humorist and former The Daily Show correspondent presented a parade of fake knowledge in almanac form. Hilarious on its surface, the trilogy also deeply satirized our country's drift toward a post-truth reality. On a less alarming level, those books underscored the remoteness that Hodgman has always cultivated as an entertainer. Quirky, nerdy, and cerebrally charming, his persona never felt very candid or intimate. That's changed — a bit — with his new book, Vacationland. In it, Hodgman has bridged the distance that came with penning volumes of faux reference. And he's done so in the most direct way possible: by writing about himself.
After growing up in rural western Massachusetts, the only child of well-educated, white-collar parents, Hodgman attended Yale. These are facts. But as Hodgman delivers what would otherwise be a sterile story, he peppers his narrative with deadpan asides, cocktails of self-deprecation and mock homespun wisdom: "Insecurely teasing a teenager is a privilege of fatherhood," he asserts, and "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 I no longer deserve physical affection.'"
Hodgman himself has sported a mustache over the past few years, and it's just one of the many achingly funny life changes he chronicles with scattershot energy throughout Vacationland. The gist of the book, though, follows his gradual relocation, with his family, from Massachusetts to Maine — not a huge leap on paper, but one that symbolizes Hodgman's metamorphosis into middle age. He dwells on encroaching mortality, but never skips a chance to tackle even the weightiest subjects with bookish glee: Every lake in Maine, according to him, is a "Lovecraftian hellscape," and his brief tangents into the bizarre fringes of U.S. history evoke the weirdness of his almanac trilogy — minus the falsehoods, if not the snarky embellishments. Maine, in his telling, was created when the government asked its existing states if they had "had any garbage land they didn't want, and Massachusetts said, 'Oh yes. We absolutely do. We have this whole, massive hump of half-Canada up there that we never use. Take it."
Vacationland veers from topic to topic — death, drugs, indie rock, Stephen King — but it revolves around Hodgman without every fully becoming a memoir. Hodgman is the lens, and through him the reader gets an off-kilter peek at New England: its people, its geography, its legacy. That saves the book from myopia; when it verges on self-indulgence, which it routinely does, Hodgman pulls it back from the brink with a well-aimed jab, usually at his own expense. He acknowledges, without flinching, how shamefully white his environment is, and in doing so he offers some of Vacationland's most poignant moments — bursts of humility, insight, and empathy. He even cuts Maine some slack. Despite his fun-poking, he ultimately admits that it's "a beautiful place that I paradoxically want to hoard to myself and share with everyone I meet."
So who exactly is the John Hodgman of Vacationland? A pop-culture de Tocqueville? A geek-chic Thoreau? A Gen-X Twain? The author offers no easy answers. But if one image coalesces out of Vacationland's cloud of whimsical observations and wry anecdotes, it's that of Hodgman as a regular guy — granted, a bitingly witty regular guy, but one saddled with aging, fatherhood, and a gut-level unease about the pathological absurdity of American life. It's subtitled True Stories from Painful Beaches, and Hodgman's use of the word "true" hints at a profound shift: from a funnyman fabricator to a bemused participant in a skewed if hopefully salvageable society. Sharp, silly, and sensitive, Vacationland is a literary selfie of a concerned citizen storyteller — one in which the oldest slice of the United States does a little inelegant photobombing.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the forthcoming book Strange Stars (Melville House). Twitter: @jason_m_heller