“This is not a book about marriage or family, both because I respect my loved ones’ private lives, and because I am very selfish,” John Hodgman writes at the beginning of Vacationland. “This is a book about me, at what I hope is the beginning of the second half of my life and not the brief, final tenth.”
Hodgman’s latest stands apart from his previous books—The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That Is All, three excellent tomes that purported to contain the sum total of all world knowledge, but actually contained a bunch of made-up facts and hobo names. Vacationland, on the other hand, is full of true things: memories and thoughts and jokes and essays, all of which gradually cohere into a careful, bittersweet memoir. It’s just as funny as his previous books; it’s better than all of them.
Hodgman spends most of Vacationland in three places: “the green mountains of rural western Massachusetts where I disposed of my youth, the mercilessly painful beaches of coastal Maine where I will eventually accept my death, and the haunted forest of middle age that lies between them.” Despite never getting sappy (nostalgia, he correctly notes, is a “toxic impulse,” the “twinned, yearning delusion that [a] the past was better [it wasn’t] and [b] it can be recaptured [it can’t] that leads at best to bad art, movie versions of old TV shows, and sad dads watching Fox News”), Hodgman is keenly aware of how past losses reverberate into our futures, and how lives rarely go as planned, even for those, like the author, who ended up on the lucky side of that “nauseating chasm of class and privilege.” “Thus we come to the central conflict of my life and this book,” Hodgman writes. “I OWN TWO SUMMER HOMES. Are you enjoying my very relatable book of essays and reflections?”
Unlike other books by rich white dudes, Vacationland really is enjoyable, in no small part thanks to stories like Hodgman’s recollection of getting high and spending hours stacking rocks in a riverbed with Jonathan Coulton (“Sometimes Jonathan Coulton would bring his family up to visit ours. Jonathan is a musician and my best friend. I hope he does not read that last part”). But there’s sadness here, too, and a deep-rooted knowledge that none of us are as special as we think. “There are times when all the lies you have told about yourself to yourself just fall away,” Hodgman notes. “In your twenties, you tell yourself the lie that you are unusual, unprecedented, and interesting,” while in your thirties, “you tell yourself the lie that you are still in your twenties. Many in their forties tell themselves this same lie, until a moment like this, and suddenly you see yourself clearly.”
Self-reflection—and reflections on family, and death, and what it means to be a white man in 2017—are at the core of Vacationland, except funnier than I just made them sound. At first, Hodgman doesn’t even seem to like the places he’s ended up (“the beaches of Maine are made out of jagged stones shaped like knives,” and sure, there are also lakes, but “you do not want to swim in them either, because lakes are disgusting”), but he does know that we can learn from such places, and that we can teach ourselves while in them. “Maine is not a death cult,” he promises toward the end. “I mean, it is. But it’s a slow one. It creeps in like the tide, and without your even noticing, the ground around you is swallowed by water, until it is gone.”