“It seems wrong to say that so dystopian a novel is great fun to read, but it’s true. I suspect that Thomas Pynchon and Hunter S. Thompson would love this book.” High praise indeed from Salman Rushdie. But is it truly the writing of Sean Penn or Sean Penn himself that has attracted this level of favor for a debut novel?–one that, at the very least, is not an autobiography. Released as of today (March 27th), Penn’s bizarrely, somewhat Denis Johnson-reminiscent titled Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is a satire about the current state of affairs, mainly in the United States, where most actors are at their prime level of comfortableness with going off on a tangent about that which they really know nothing about.
Among other topics that Penn somehow feels qualified to speak on is the #MeToo movement, his chief commentary upon the “cause” being that the heavy meaning and trauma behind it has been callously reduced to a hashtag, as he states, “Is this a toddler’s crusade? Reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child’s play?” Okay, thanks for the opinion–where was this level of compassion for women being given their full due and respect when he was smacking the shit out of Madonna in the late 80s? Now being billed as not just a legendary actor, but also “activist” (I guess shaking El Chapo’s hand is additional activism apart from inserting himself into Haitian matters of “rebuilding” post-earthquake–a relief fund for which, naturally, paid for all of his first-class flights to get there), Penn is apparently more than licensed to express a biting opinion on the state of affairs in this most post-apocalyptic year, 2018. Though it is the election of 2016 that serves as the backdrop of the choppy narrative. And like any “licensed” author, Penn knows well enough to commence his novel with three quotes that will set the stage for what it is he’s trying to say. To assure us of his seriousness, he wields one of the aphorisms from the filmic king of nihilism himself, Ingmar Bergman: “We walk in circles, so limited by our anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.” A repurposed thesis statement for taking on the subject of a certain “Mein Drumpf” a.k.a. Mr. Landlord, Penn’s eponymous “hero” is a divorcé who works in waste management and has also purveyed fireworks to various dictators throughout the world. His antisocial behavior leads to conflict with his California neighbors (are you sensing the autobiographical tone yet?), and he also leads a secret life as an assassin of the elderly. An obvious statement on wanting to do away with the old guard, the truth is, most old people are more evolved than Penn. Ageism aside, it’s clear that Penn suffers the delusion he is not classifiable in the genre of irrelevant old man as well. But maybe it’s all part of the whole, “We hate the qualities in other people that we hate the most in ourselves” thing.
What’s worse, Penn missed out on the activism train while he was busy being a bad boy and abuser at the pinnacle of his fame, which occurred during a time when it might have been just as useful to rebel against Reagan conservatism and homophobia. Penn’s sudden wokeness at the same moment as everyone else with regard to this is also fileable under the too little, too late column. Indeed, his weirdness about gay men when his now ex-wife was friends with them/donating portions of her fortune to the cause of AIDS relief doesn’t sit well with one as he proselytizes in this novel with what has been deemed by The Washington Post as far too much alliteration–a sign of trying too hard that can befall many unqualified first-time authors who want to prove their familiarity with basic literary devices. That being said, reviewer Mark Athitakis critiqued, “May he never quit his day job; Penn delivers prose as if he were gunning for a prize from the American Alliteration Association. ‘Dreams died like destiny’s deadwood,’ he writes. And: ‘Scottsdale’s dry climate contradicts the clammy calescent of New Guinean condensation.’ Something prompts Bob’s ‘provision of personal protocols;’ an investigative journalist named Spurley is on his tail, and ‘Spurley sloppily slurps’ a Popsicle. Police are accused of ‘racial rancor by Ruger in a country rife with rule of law.'” Even USA Today noticed, commenting similarly, “He overdoes it in the early going with an addiction to alliteration—the too-frequent uses of phrases like ‘dutiful dragoman,’ ‘cadres of cannibals’ and ‘Wader’s whimsy for wheeling Wahhabist roadways’ break up the flow as Penn introduces his protagonist.” A protagonist intended to be just the “antihero” we need.
Perhaps missing his chance to be a part of the 1960s counterculture that he and Lana Del Rey so blatantly romanticize, Penn’s narrative structure sees fit to take on the disjointed “poetic” tone that maybe only Kerouac could have gotten away with (though some still argue that he did not). As well as commenting on matters from the perspective of a hopelessly out of touch baby boomer that wants so badly to be a part of the conversation that is getting everyone up in arms (pardon the unintentional play on words with regard to guns and their control), maybe Penn has written more of an autobiography than a piece of fiction–for it seems as though Bob Honey is the man he sees himself as: a fighter of freedom, an attracter of younger women and a curmudgeon that everyone seems to be interested in.
While, in his mind, the intent behind Penn’s book is one of genuineness, it would appear that one of the main flaws in it is a lack of subtlety. Looking to Jonathan Swift on how satire is done, it’s unlikely that he would have chosen to incorporate a Yellow Lives Matter march as a plot point about blonde-haired, blue-eyed white men marching for their rights.
Despite all this, it’s possible some people will like the book, thereby encouraging Penn to persist in saying that, “I’m not in love with [acting] anymore.” Others, who can only see the hypocrisy in it, will perhaps yearn for the simpler days of “literary” celebrity publications, like Jewel’s book of poetry, A Night Without Armor. But at least Jewel put a hair more thought into the work, for parts of it were created during a period of pre-fame. As for Penn, the title Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff could easily be changed to Sean Penn Who Just Do Stuff Like Decide to Write A Book.