What is Sean Penn thinking? Novels are supposed to be portals into an author’s mind, reflecting a writer’s thoughts and giving them a clever and artful shape through plot, style and characterization. We are now in our third year of living with Penn’s debut fictional opus, “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff,” and the picture is not getting any clearer.
“Bob Honey,” you may recall, first emerged during the height of the 2016 election season, released as a free audiobook performed by a cast that included Frances McDormand and Penn himself. At the time, Penn was halfheartedly slinging the line that “Bob Honey” was the brainchild of one Pappy Pariah, whom Penn claimed to have met at a writers’ conference in 1979. The “Bob Honey” manuscript, the story went, found its way in circuitous fashion to Penn via his mother in early 2016, and its satire of rising Trumplandia was so potent it demanded Penn rush to . . . narrate it.
For the novel version, released this week, Penn has ditched the Pappy Pariah nonsense and filled out the plot, though it is still a slim tale. Befitting an actor whose résumé includes both “Dead Man Walking” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Bob Honey” is all over the place in any format, slapdash in style and structure. Bob is a 50-something Southern California man who has had a Zelig-like relationship with South American drug lords, Middle Eastern warlords and the American military-industrial complex. He walks the earth clouting the aged with a mallet because they cannot get with the zeitgeist and also because EPA research found that the “extermination of high-flatulence populations” would be a social boon. In a stumblebum way, the story makes its way to the Republican National Convention, where the “Mussolini of Mayberry would be fomenting his flock.”
The satire of Trumpish times was clear in late 2016, though the heroism of a cynical divorcee like Bob was not; it did not help that Penn voiced Bob in a sleepy, squeaky drawl that at once evoked Larry the Cable Guy and Kermit the Frog. Still, as an audiobook, “Bob Honey” had a certain unserious, busman’s holiday charm. It got a lift from its variety of voices, though some of them were broad ethnic stereotypes. As a free download, “Bob Honey” hit the right price point.
For the novel version of the story, though, Penn is relegated to being a maker of sentences. May he never quit his day job; Penn delivers prose as if he were gunning for a prize from the American Alliteration Association. “Dreams died like destiny’s deadwood,” he writes. And: “Scottsdale’s dry climate contradicts the clammy calescent of New Guinean condensation.” Something prompts Bob’s “provision of personal protocols” ; an investigative journalist named Spurley is on his tail, and “Spurley sloppily slurps” a Popsicle. Police are accused of “racial rancor by Ruger in a country rife with rule of law.”
So, sadly, soporifically on. Penn is fixated on matters of populism and authenticity: Among Bob’s chief targets is a society that has been “marketed into madness.” He has an affection for 1960s protest music, quoting liberally from John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and a half-dozen songs by downhearted, sarcastic folkie Phil Ochs. Penn has a plain affection for the 1960s counterculture novel, from the let-’er-rip automatic writing of the Beats to Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with its suggestion that an oppressive society will deem any outspoken, decent human being insane. In that light, “Bob Honey” is best appreciated as the fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, cannot make sense of it, but cannot 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.
If only the satire were funnier, though. If only the writing were more coherent. And if only the timing were better. In the weeks before the last presidential election, “Bob Honey” reflected the goofiness of the moment’s political theater. Now that we are living with its consequences, the story feels off point and toothless. Toward the end of the novel, a broken Bob Honey writes a letter to “Mr. Landlord,” a stand-in for Trump, grousing, “You are not simply a president in need of impeachment, you are a man in need of an intervention. We are not simply a people in need of an intervention, we are a nation in need of an assassin . . . Sir, I challenge you to a duel. Tweet me . . . I dare you.”
Pundits have seized on that “assassin” line, as if Bob were a sensible or interesting enough character to take seriously as a folk hero. (More curious is the novel’s epilogue, an Ochs-ian poem in which Penn keens at #MeToo as “this infantilizing term of the day.” ) The Trump era may yet find its gonzo literary truthteller who can capture our moment with more comedy and absurdity than reality itself can. It is unquestionably a tough job. Sean Penn is not up to it as a novelist, but who knows? There is always a chance for a movie.
Mark Athitakis is a critic and author of “The New Midwest.”
By Sean Penn
Atria. 160 pp. $24