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John Hodgman's new memoir is a delightful escapade in 'white-privilege mortality comedy'

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- There's a moment in John Hodgman's new book, "Vacationland," when we find the author and comedian at his cabin in the great disappearing emptiness that is the woods of Maine, impaled on a hook on a barn door.

For anyone who's ever sustained a serious injury -- when you realize that you're going to need immediate medical attention -- there's one thing you understand about such an instance: It's dead serious.

And yet, in the hands of our charming narrator, you can't help but smile and shake your head when the trip to the nearest emergency room -- a half-hour ride through dark, snowy roads -- is just a stop on a supermarket run to pick up gin and milk.

Priorities, right?

Such are the pleasures of reading "Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches," a book which, as the title suggests, is a collection of true stories that Hodgman calls "white-privilege mortality comedy." Fans might prefer to call it a peek under the robes of the man we know best as Judge John Hodgman, from both his podcast and his column in The New York Times Magazine.

Hodgman's latest book is notable not just because it's a memoir centered around the angst of a middle-aged white man confronting his own eventual death. It's also in contrast to his three books of fake facts -- the endlessly delightful "The Areas of My Expertise," which features 700 made-up hobo names, "More Information Than You Require" and "That Is All" -- because this one is funny and completely true.

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"As a member of the super-smart-afraid-of-conflict-narcissist club that is only-childhood, and being from Massachusetts, I grew up with a puritanical shame and sense that I shouldn't be talking about myself," Hodgman told me recently, as he wrapped up his book tour with a visit to Chicago and then Austin, Texas. "So the book began as a one-man comedy show in a basement in Brooklyn where I felt it would be acceptable to tell personal and vulnerable stories about myself and my family, because once told to just the audience in the room, they'd be gone. But I grew to like the show so much that I felt it would be a meaningful thing to capture and share with people in a more permanent way."

What "Vacationland" shares with his first three books is that, just as he wrote those for a potentially tiny audience of geeky people who just really enjoy gags about hooks for hands and hobo culture (guilty as charged), Hodgman said that this memoir was "a book that I couldn't not write."

"You really overestimate me if you think I had a grand plan or any ambition of redefining the memoir genre," Hodgman said. "I only wanted to continue to tell stories, and I knew fake facts was not authentic anymore. Over the course of my career I had worn a lot of costumes as 'John Hodgman,' as the lunatic 'resident expert' and 'deranged millionaire' on 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,' and, suddenly, I didn't want to wear any more costumes or hide behind elaborately formatted charts and graphs."

Readers get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth -- and are better for it.

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