by Sean Penn
Well, this one’s awkward. Awkward’s probably the best way to describe it succinctly, anyway, and here I thought I’d be leaning more toward “weird” after reading what it’s about. By day, Bob Honey’s a septic tank salesman whose business savvy apparently allowed him to corner the Jehovah’s Witness slice of that market. By night, he knocks off the elderly at the secretive request of (maybe) the CIA. The story itself has more to do with Bob’s feuds with his neighbours, his relationship with a journalist attempting to understand him, obsessing over a woman, and something of a rivalry with a New Guinean mercenary. All this seems to be combining to create something of a satire aimed at modern politics and society.
And this sounded appealing to me despite the negative review I encountered before picking it up, because I love off-the-wall, absurdist satire, along the lines of Gore Vidal’s Duluth. The problem is: Penn is no Vidal. I mean, obviously. Vidal’s a rare talent, but what I’m getting at is this style only works when the writing is strong, and that’s where Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff falls apart. Clumsy rhymes and bad puns frequent the pages, but alliteration is the thing that stole the author’s heart. A review hilariously complained that the reader couldn’t stop seeing it because someone pointed this out to them ahead of time, but, honestly, it’s so forced, extended, and pervasive that I can’t imagine how anyone could emerge from Bob Honey without noticing it. And Penn prizes complex sentences filled with difficult vocabulary over clarity. I mean, it’s possible that he’s pushing language to the full extent of nuance, but I think the truth has more to do with him being either an overconfident amateur or an insecure writer looking to prove his worth through impenetrable complexity. Or drunk. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s actually it, just because the writing very much reminds me of my own that I get super pumped about while drinking. He even does something intoxicated Alex is well familiar with: placing words with similar structure close together in sentences. You know, solid/stolid, advertising/adversarial, intimacies/inanimacies, reciprocal/unequivocal. I really don’t know why this appeals so much to drunk me, but I do know that the novelty usually fades after sobering up, so it’s possible that Penn started drinking and just never stopped.
This is much crueller than the average review that comes out of me, and I think it would be interesting to consider why I feel comfortable writing this way in this case while I would usually shy away from it. I think that Penn’s fame makes it easier for me to see him not as a real person, and so it becomes easier to use plain language to describe how I feel rather than downplaying what I disliked and focusing on the positives of a work I disliked overall, even if it sounds mean by the end. And, I mean, he tried something, and it was something different. Even if Bob Honey wasn’t for me, I still think it’s great that he tried. Maybe with time and experience Penn will perfect his style and he’ll write something similarly crazy, but something crazy that I can appreciate, assuming the widespread negative reception doesn’t scare him away from the world of fiction.