Has a work of fiction ever arrived so swaddled in shenanigans? “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff,” a best-selling audiobook — part thriller, part political commentary — narrated and championed by Sean Penn, comes with as much hoopla as a campaign rally.
Penn appears in a documentary about the audiobook, in which he tells us, while making a meal in what seems to be his kitchen, about the novel’s mysterious backstory: that he first met its author, one Pappy Pariah, at a writers’ conference in Florida in 1979. The Bob Honey manuscript circuitously, miraculously found its way to Penn via his mother earlier this year. Penn was so profoundly moved by the story’s relevance to the junkyard-in-flames that is American politics circa 2016 that he dropped everything and hastened it into production, with the help of a few other actors, such as Frances McDormand. Bolstered by talking heads — historian Doug Brinkley, Bill Maher, producer Art Linson — the short film has the air of a bookish “This Is Spinal Tap.”
Penn’s enthusiasm for Pariah has been so robust that he has made the rounds of late night television with it — but not so robust that he’ll let people give the author money directly: “Bob Honey” is available free via Audible (perhaps that price explains some of its popularity).
But, okay, fine. Let’s take Penn at his word and assume that he is only the enthusiastic steward of this book, not its author. If so, it’s revealing about Penn anyway. Pariah expresses the same sour mood toward America’s military adventures that Penn himself has, and shares Penn’s concerns with populism and authenticity: Among Bob Honey’s chief targets is a society that has been “marketed into madness.” And, befitting an actor whose résumé includes both “Dead Man Walking” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Bob Honey is all over the place, slapdash in style and structure.
Just consider what we’re asked to believe about the novella’s hero, Bob Honey: He’s a 55-year-old Southern California loner whose job cleaning septic tanks (his main clients are Jehovah’s Witnesses) brings him into the orbit of military contractors in Iraq, which in turn introduces him to the “Scottsdale program,” a secret government plot designed to dispose of America’s elderly, who are a drain on resources and bad for the nation’s branding to boot. Honey coolly dispenses with the aged via the kind of mallet he used in his youth as a carny in test-your-strength games.
Bob goes about this business amid prose that at times resembles a news release from the Tinfoil Hat Enthusiasts of America. “This is the thing about brands and beauty: They cannot be randomly claimed,” Penn intones in a somber whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. “They demand polish and a system of greed valuation that would allow its practitioners to bring society a continuing sense of fraudulent comfort.”
And the plot? As shaggy-dog stories go, this one is pretty much in shreds: I haven’t even mentioned the helicopter conveniently crashing into a nosy neighbor’s home, or Pariah’s commentary on the elderly’s methane overproduction. Adding to the absurdity, Penn voices Bob in a sleepy, squeaky drawl that at once evokes Larry the Cable Guy and Kermit the Frog.
Of course, Pariah doesn’t intend for us to confuse Bob’s bonkers backstory for literary realism. Bob Honey is best appreciated as the fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, can’t make sense of it, but can’t contain his fury at it anyhow: His head is filled with fantasies of an attractive young girlfriend, a gig setting off fireworks for a South American strongman and chaos on the streets during the Republican National Convention. “I don’t ever really tell the truth much,” he tells an investigative reporter. “I wonder sometimes if the truth might be more habit than virtue.”
Bob’s preposterousness does have its charms. There’s a reckless, Hunter S. Thompson-ish spirit to its climactic chapter, as Bob watches the RNC (where “the Mussolini of Mayberry was fomenting his flock”) and stumbles upon marchers chanting “yellow lives matter” — yellow as in Aryan blond. To underscore the point that we’ve been on this road before, Pariah returns often to folk song lyrics — Bob Dylan, John Lennon and especially Phil Ochs, whose jaundiced lines are a fine fit for Bob’s cynicism.
But how to reconcile that with scenes of a chance meeting with an El Chapo-esque drug lord, gratuitous mallet-swinging and hunting down a sex toy in Las Vegas? Or delivering black, Jewish, Middle Eastern and Latino characters in the broadest, most stereotypical accents? Absurd times demand gonzo storytelling, we are meant to assume; politics soaked in racism presumably demand ironic, on-the-nose racial caricatures. But such gestures feel more like sloppy, hollow provocations than the sharp political commentary Penn says he was smitten by.
Maybe Pariah is on to something, however. At one point, Bob’s perhaps-imaginary girlfriend beseeches him to work harder to keep this story together.
But why should he?
In this political season, sensible narrative is just another piece of kindling for the junkyard fire.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix. “The New Midwest,” a book of his criticism, will be published in February.
By Pappy Pariah
Narrated by Sean Penn et al.
Audible. 21/2 hours. Free