The state of Maine is in the midst of an identity crisis. Known as America’s “Vacationland” since a 1930s branding effort, the New England enclave has experienced a shrinking population, higher levels of poverty and addiction, a much-discussed brain drain, and pugilist tea party Gov. Paul LePage.
LePage (R) even rebranded the state’s slogan in 2011: “Open for Business.” But the sign on Interstate 95 near the New Hampshire border was repeatedly vandalized and stolen. The Office of Tourism and the Chamber of Commerce have tried softer sells: “Worth a Visit, Worth a Lifetime” or “It Must be Maine.”
It must be. A state that has for many years relied on tourism harbors a contradiction at its core: An extremely insular place, Maine depends on the curiosity of outsiders. Its solemnity and frigidness mean it is also a place with a strong ethic of live-and-let-live. Mainers look out for one another, even if they often resent one another. This makes the state a kind of metonym for New England at large: old, overwhelmingly white, conservative in character if not in politics, skeptical, flinty, salty or whatever other mildly condescending euphemism you prefer.
It has, for many years, also been the kind of place where urban writers (those persistent “from awayers”) go to project and reflect. For many writers, Maine means a simpler, sparer kind of existence, a place to practice “deliberate living,” like Thoreau’s cabin but with more lobster.
“Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches,” a collection of essayistic stories from the self-described “minor television personality” John Hodgman, plays along with this theme. The “painful beaches” of his subtitle are Maine’s, but the book splits between Hodgman’s two summer homes in Maine and western Massachusetts. (“Are you enjoying my very relatable book of essays and reflections?” he asks coyly after revealing this bounty.)
In the years since 2000, Hodgman has made his way as a humorist and storyteller at the confluence of Brooklyn literariness, podcasting and, for lack of a better term, “nerd culture.” He also struck upon some luck and fortune playing the nebbish “PC” in the Apple ads. As a kind of Garrison Keillor for Gen Xers, he has fashioned a slightly exaggerated version of himself as a public persona and written a very funny trilogy of faux almanacs of “fake facts” in his “Areas of My Expertise” books.
“Vacationland” works like a kind of addendum to those books. If “The Areas of My Expertise” reveled in the weirdness of the nearly true, “Vacationland” pauses at the strangeness of the ordinary, the bluntness of real-world circumstances. Hodgman is great at confronting the surrealism of adult life, and he is always finding his way back from his imagination to a stranger truth; reconciling his own fantasies with broader, more consistent realities — that means death, mostly.
But while death and discomfort underwrite this book, overall the collection has an air of comfortable resignation. Aging 30- and 40-somethings of a certain demographic like Hodgman share a number of concerns, which might be generally described as a reconciliation of the values, identities and totems of their youth with the onset of middle age, homeownership and, perhaps most of all, parenthood. There are a few genuinely sweet moments here between Hodgman and his children — and between him and his own mother, whose illness and death seem to pervade the book even when not explicitly mentioned.
But this reconciliation also contains a fundamental confrontation with his own privilege. Hodgman makes no claims to universality, and he reminds us of the nature of his pseudo-fame — at least two times in the book he recalls being recognized in public by fans. But while a level of modesty is appreciated, even the ironic reiteration of one’s advantages can present as its own kind of aloofness.
A fine, but somewhat strained essay near the end of the book attempts to link commentary on Maine, privilege, whiteness and Black Lives Matter. “It wasn’t just aging guys like me anymore; it was as if all of Whiteness was going through a desperate midlife crisis,” Hodgman writes. This reflects something true, certainly, but it isn’t clear why he takes on the burden of being an avatar for the average white man. For one thing, he isn’t especially average (we can’t all be minor television personalities), but it’s also unclear that an explicitly personal reckoning is what we need now.
That battle is perhaps the more interesting and underadvertised topic of “Vacationland.” Personal essay-style confrontations with privilege can, at their best, dig up new questions, propose new solutions — and at their worst, they simply fret. There are more new questions than fretting here, but the neurosis of comfortable people hardly changes whether they are in the beautiful city or on the beautiful coastline.
Thankfully, one fiction that Hodgman dismisses is that money doesn’t change things. It changes everything. “The vast degree to which my mental health improved once I had the smallest measure of economic security immediately unmasked this shameful fiction to me,” he tells us. “Money cannot buy happiness, but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constant worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future, and the ability to be generous.”
One discomfiting reality he emphasizes is that having money and security hardly gets rid of the fear of dying. For that, one might just need to plunge into Maine’s frigid waters.
Charles Thaxton’s reviews and criticism have appeared in the New Inquiry, Full Stop and WBUR.org.
By John Hodgman
Viking. 257 pp. $25