John Hodgman: Vacation Man

With his new memoir, Vacationland, the multi-hyphenate humorist is out to do more than just callously insult Maine’s beaches.

John Hodgman in Surry, Maine.
“Maine is a beautiful place that I paradoxically want to hoard to myself and share with everyone I meet,” writes Hodgman in Vacationland, more or less summing up the tension that has thrummed through this magazine for the last 63 years.
By Will Grunewald
Photographs by Molly Haley
From our November 2017 issue

While wading into the ocean at a rocky beach near Blue Hill, John Hodgman began talking about how the water seemed colder this year, then stopped himself. “Long conversations can be had about the temperature of water on one side of the peninsula compared to the other — a 3-degree rise can keep a dinner party going for a couple of hours,” he said. “It’s one of the worst things about Maine.”

Hodgman is the author of three bestselling compendia of made-up facts; he’s also a former Daily Show contributor, a character actor, and host of the Judge John Hodgman podcast (and recurring New York Times Magazine segment of the same name). Now, he’s written a memoir, Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, divided into two parts: life before and after buying a house on the Blue Hill Peninsula, in Brooklin.

He uses the state nickname tongue-in-cheekily, but “painful beaches” is literal. “People have discovered other places to vacation where the sand is soft and the water is warm and welcoming and makes you feel like you deserve pleasure,” he said, standing in a drift of seaweed. “If you naturally believe you don’t deserve happiness, the beaches of Maine are for you.”

So Hodgman didn’t set out to pen a soaring encomium to Maine — but neither did he want to write the satire trip that fans of his other work might expect. As he chastises yacht club snobs, calls out unfriendly tourist traps, and ponders his fit in the quiet, aging, uncool scene Down East, he comes off not as an ardent booster, adoring Maine unconditionally, but as a dead ringer for a Mainer: curmudgeonly, wry, fond of Moxie.

As he toweled off, Hodgman took stock of his book’s influences. “Forty percent was inspired by E.B. White and 40 percent by Stephen King,” he said, “leaving 20 percent for me.” After buying in Brooklin, during drives up the coast, Hodgman’s wife read aloud the dispatches that White wrote from his own Brooklin home. By then, Hodgman had tired of inventing fake facts. “It wasn’t who I was anymore,” he said. White’s skill at finding universality in mundane, local experiences resonated.

“He was one of the only people who could just write what he knew,” Hodgman said, adding that “write what you know” is generally bad advice. “First, make sure you know interesting things, which requires some life experience. E.B. White knew interesting things.”

King, whose books Hodgman would grab at the Big Chicken Barn antiques store, in Ellsworth, had a different impact. “If E.B. White is, line by line, one of the most talented writers in American letters,” he said, “Stephen King is, line by line by line by line by line, one of the best. He just lets it all hang out until he finds what he wants, which I admire.”

In Vacationland, both influences are evident: here, a tightly structured recollection of backing up a boat trailer; there, a long chapter that shifts focus from privacy to property regulations to hitchhiking to internet trolling and back again to privacy.

The book is still anchored by Hodgman’s trademark irony and wit — it is really, really funny — but these are applied to his real life and tempered by empathy for the people in it. “Maybe that 40-40-20 thing isn’t so accurate,” he reconsidered, strolling up a grassy slope from the beach. “I like to think there’s more of me in the book.”

Recently, Hodgman took a chain saw class. It might come in handy clearing deadfall from his property, he said, but mostly he just wanted to try something new: “When you get an email from your neighbor saying ‘I’m holding a free chain saw seminar, no experience necessary,’ you go. That’s how you know interesting things.”

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