There’s a lot that could be said about Sean Penn’s first novel – Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff– and a lot of that has already been said. From critiques saying, “His debut novel is a mess” to “cloaked in crazy”, these words nip at the overall construction of the novel but do little to address the theme and or the background of the author himself. The book, though flawed, is more than just a mess.
Critics agree that Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is meant to be a contained mess and is executed well in this way. The 150+ page rant is supposed to be decipherable, a sort of unraveling saga of those who hold power over the rest of the nation. Often, this takes the form of absurdist actions, such as the continued slaughter of the elderly throughout the book because they fail to produce or serve a purpose to the heavily capitalist society. Don’t worry it’s satire.
Many critics also point out that Sean Penn is an actor first and not a writer, and that certain elements of the book remind of us of this. However, the book is, at its heart, a first book. It is full of holes to pick open and flaws to expose, and while it meant well, it’s main accomplishment is documenting the dystopian future could await America, in Sean Penn’s eyes.
For a lot of readers, frustrated with the political vibe of 2018, this was a much-needed break from reality. When the political sphere is full of insults, problematic rhetoric, and childish behavior, sometimes you need a book like Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff to point out the absurdity of the times.
Delusions of Grandeur Shown but Not Told
Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff starts out amid a police state, a fear that defined 2016. His prying neighbors are consistently calling in to the police to report his erratic behavior, and though he ignores them, continuing his high-ranking, top-secret military jobs. His life highlights the American dream.
Bob lives in the suburbs, has a wife and a comfortable house, and is paid well. However, his hatred and animosity toward the people he lives with is amplified not only in the way that he acts toward his fellow citizens, but also in the way that he talks.
Between strands of alliteration and vocabulary that surpass normal discourse, Bob Honey’s discussions with himself contain truths only found in a mad-man’s mental monologues. Many argue that Penn’s use of language was not intentional, rather a vain attempt at sounding like Hunter S. Thompson. But anyone who has read Hunter S. Thompson, or alternately, books with unnecessarily florid language like Morrissey’s autobiography, can see that this writing is intentional.
Sentences like “His olfactory system offended, he held his breath for five complete minutes until the plane, as if riding the rifling of barrel spirals, pitched level and landed, taxied, then opened its door”, are always said within the inner workings of Bob’s mind, underlining the idea that they were not ever meat to be said out loud.
Additionally, the gilded language serves the purpose of emphasizing Bob Honey’s delusions of grandeur. While we hardly see him interacting with any other characters in any sort of meaningful sense, including with his wife. The self-important anti-hero is obsessed with himself to the point that he even says he refers to himself in the third person. While this also serves as a metaphor for disconnectedness, it truly points a finger at the way that many white, and especially male, Americans see themselves.
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The over-the-top references to Americana are both funny and frustrating, but one could argue that is their point. References to American history, American folktales, and often just the state of America highlight the unravelling threads that are supposedly holding the country together. The problematic character “Cowboy” near the beginning is one of the first dives into the unpacking of American icons – here we have a character whose actions and being are the antithesis of the American cowboy icon.
Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff tries to be the voice of reason in a time that needs it. Atrocities are being committed by Americans like Bob Honey on the daily, and yet we continue to turn a blind eye to these atrocities. My qualm is this – we do not need another Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, or Kurt Vonnegut. No one questions the validity and worth of these voices, and books like Cat’s Cradle or Dharma Bums are highlights of historical American writing as well as being necessary reads. For now, we have Sean Penn to remind us the voicing dissent is the most important contribution we can give to democracy. Stand up, speak out, and do so unapologetically.
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