Book review

Sean Penn, who just do stuff, has written a thesaurus masquerading as an unreadable debut novel

First Tom Hanks, now Sean Penn. Maybe Hollywood actors should focus on what they do best.

Imagine handing a toddler unlimited amounts of play dough and expecting a recreation of Michelangelo’s David. The resulting sculpture will be infinitely better than Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.

Perhaps the only reason for the existence of Sean Penn’s debut novel is the author’s Hollywood status. Or maybe he does take writing seriously and intends to trade the camera for a word processor. If it’s the latter, he’s got off to a harrowing start.

The titular character is a fifty-something septic tank contractor-turned-killer of old people. Bob Honey goes around smashing their heads in with a mallet. His introduction to this covert mission happens on a trip to Baghdad, where he gets off the plane and inhales the “new morning’s Muslim air.” His reason for murder: geriatrics are a “high flatulence population” who need to be eradicated to make way for industrialists.

In the hands of even a competent writer, this story could have been very interesting. Instead, Penn veers off-course and follows Bob, who spends most of his time ranting about the socio-political state of America and its “marketed, manipulated” media. While sitting on the toilet, staring at the wall, Bob philosophises: “Marble, like sedimentary rock, holds greater truths than any man.”

Bob’s discontinuous relationship with Annie is described in bombastic language. She’s not an energetic merely young lady, for “effervescence lived in her every cellular expression, and she had spizzerinctum to spare.” After their first sexual encounter, Bob remarks, “Good vagina. Maybe more Vietnam.” Overall, he “found fundamentally foreknowledged form in the way Annie giggled…”

Following her departure, the chapter titled “Big Cock” has nothing to do with propelling the narrative. It deals with Bob driving into an Indian Reservation where he sticks a birthday candle on a black dildo and sets it on fire. He is “assaulted by animism” and “the schlong burns fast and hot”. The paragraph ends with a recurring phrase: “BRANDING IS BEING!”

Sorry, Sean, you can’t write

Penn’s descriptive ability is hampered by his linguistic shortcomings, but his grasp on dialogue is even worse. During a scene where an investigative journalist lands up at Bob’s house, their conversation is stilted and exposes the writer’s amateurishness.

“Spurley asks, ‘Do you think that’s funny?’
Bob shakes his head, then, ‘So, you ask people questions?’
‘Yes, Bob’
‘And they give you answers?’
‘Sometimes they do, Bob.’
‘Do you believe their answers?’
‘Sometimes I do, Bob.’
‘Not me,’ Bob says. 
‘Can I believe yours, Bob?’
‘No, sir. I don’t know if I ever really tell the truth, much. I wonder sometimes if truth might be more habit than virtue.’
‘Yes,’ says Spurley. ‘The practice of honesty has a gray hue.’”

Similar monotonous exchanges continue every time Spurley and Bob meet, and ends with the journalist leaving and “perusing Bob’s Pontiac.” All of Penn’s scenes with dialogue come across as clunky and robotic. This makes the characters flatter than they already are, and does nothing for the meandering plot.

What’s with the alliteration and word-play?

Penn is no stranger to writing. From controversial political figures to a drug cartel kingpin, Penn seems to really enjoy placing himself in the thick of things all for the sake of journalism. He told The New Yorker that writing was just like acting. Unfortunately, his novel exposes his ignorance of the former. Even though Bob Honey is a slim novel, one really needs to work hard to reach the end. Penn’s inability to write an uncomplicated sentence relegates the story to the background.

And yet, one professional reviewer compares Penn to Kurt Vonnegut. Salman Rushdie’s blurb for the book reads: “…Thomas Pynchon and Hunter S Thompson would love this…” Sarah Silverman’s blurb puts the author up there with the likes of Mark Twain. After completing the novel, you realise it deserves no such praise. Poorly crafted satire offered up in a nightmarish language soup is one way to describe Bob Honey, or, as a Goodreads user puts it, “one of the worst things I’ve ever seen and I work as a paramedic.”

There are nearly five hundred instances where the writer uses alliteration to get his point across in a novel less than 130 pages long. Some bizarre examples: “crotch of our country cringing”, “music moves him to his monkey mind’s mea culpa”, “salacious sessions of sexual solitaire she’d seen as self-regard”, “traffic, like Tinder, takes its toll in travesty upon trails”, “…poached precious protected panthers for prurient party pictures”, “mining of marble’s dynamic disclosures mandate meditative capitulation of consciousness”, “coincided coincidentally”, “She sharted agave shimmering spirits and shifted shit-faced…”, “croaks, crisps, and collapses him curbside”, “connections to corridors connecting”, “culturally constructive communicators with cannibals”, “occasional ominous offstage okónkolo”, and “Despite a deep understanding of depth…”

Peppering the narrative with alliteration and cheap word-play (“neato to leave NATO”) makes the reader feel like stuck in poetry slam purgatory. The writer’s rage-fuelled imagination is undone by his incoherence. He lines up words bumper to bumper, creating a gridlock that no discerning reader should have to sit through.

Ironically, Bob Honey falls prey to his own issues with America. While crucifying the country’s “marketing into madness”, he fails to deliver a strong argument for his own prejudice and hate. Bob Honey is an old man who thinks he has the solutions to America’s problems. Instead, he becomes part of the problem that he tries, in vain, to eradicate. He blasts the current generation by saying it is “steeped in transactional sex”, contradicting what he says only a paragraph before about his “on and off romance” with a young woman. He crosses out his own rant about “feline millennials” and there’s nobody around to tell him to practise what he preaches.

It could have been rescued, but…

While critics have lambasted the novel, there comes a moment when Penn does seem to be on the right track. In a chapter titled “Religious Tourism 2015”, Bob has decided to sail from Chile to California on a barge. Along the way he drops anchor and goes scuba-diving. Bob Honey, the 57-year-old who hates “hipster herbivores” and “common celebrityism”, finds peace in the ocean. Penn writes, “The only expectation of a man at that depth was to see, breathe, and monitor his own heart rate. There were no billboards, no televisions, no Instagram messages, no Annie, no ex-wife…” This is elegantly written and a surprising deviation from other chapters, where a helicopter randomly crashes into a neighbour’s house, or when a woman laughing uncontrollably is described thus: “Her eyes watering, she nearly poos. Bob spies what might be a dime-sized and expanding moisture blossom from her rear-end-center, signifying perhaps some minimal ass-piss.” But just when the reader thinks Penn has rescued the novel, he goes back to turning sentences on their heads and using impossible words.

Had Bob Honey been written by a person with no celebrity status, it would probably have never made it out of the slush pile. The writer has been given free reign because, at the end of the day, it’s Sean Penn. From a marketing point of view, it’s a gold mine. From a literary standpoint, it’s like digging for water in the Atacama desert.

Bob Honey’s thinly-veiled potshots at Donald Trump and his criticism of Americans sound more like slurred, drunken rants than a believable fictional character going against the socio-political grain. On a late night interview with Conan O’Brien – who finds it necessary to praise the book – Penn is asked how he would respond to critics of his book. He replies, ‘I’m 57, my pool’s heated, you can say anything you like.’ An appropriate response from a celebrity who has just published a novel and is above all criticism.

The silver lining for Sean Penn is that Bob Honey is his debut novel. Now that he’s purged himself of alliteration, inane synonyms and the overall clusterfuck of the English language, he can step out of his heated pool, dump his thesaurus, and start writing.

Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is a handbook for amateur writers all over the world. It tells you exactly what not to do while writing fiction. As you reach the end of the novel you realise it has all the makings of a movie starring the author as the titular character. In fact, Sean Penn describes exactly what his novel is not in the epigraph borrowed from Jack Kerouac: “One day I will find the right words and they will be simple.” Unfortunately, Bob Honey is simple in only a blockheaded way.

Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff: A Novel, Sean Penn, Atria Books.

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