The debut novel of actor Sean Penn, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff basically reads as if it was written by someone who read the first thirty pages of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and then thought, “I could do this! How difficult can it be!?” When the book first came out, several critics declared it to be the worst novel ever written but I don’t know if I’d go that far. It may very well be the worst novel of 2018 but it’s not really memorable enough to deserve the grand title of worst ever.
It’s very much a debut novel, which is to say that there’s no plot, all of the characters have cutesy names, and it’s absurdly overwritten. Penn really goes out of his way to let you know that he owns a thesaurus. Making it somehow even more annoying is his habit of using footnotes to explain any word or acronym that he suspects that we, being mere readers, will not be able to understand.
As far as I can tell, each chapter is about whatever Penn was upset about on the day that he wrote it. The first half of the novel is all about Bob Honey making money selling plumbing equipment to Jehovah’s Witnesses and murdering old people because old people take up too much space. Though the entire book takes place in Honey’s mind, we’re never quite sure who Bob Honey is because Sean Penn himself doesn’t seem to know. Penn came up with a silly name and a stupid career and some random quirks and then I presume he forced his friends to read the first few chapters.
“Did you like it?” Penn asked.
“Uhmmm…” his friends replied, “It’s …. uhmmm … interesting….”
“I know! It really is!”
The second half of the book was written after Trump was elected President because Bob Honey suddenly goes from being apolitical and ennui-stricken to suddenly being really pissed off that the country has been taken over by “The Landlord.” Suddenly, Bob Honey is a woke assassin and you get the feeling that if Hillary Clinton had won, Penn never wouldn’t have had any idea how to finish the book. However, since Trump won, the book ends with a lengthy poem in which Penn mentions every political cause that he cares about, along with letting us know that he’s skeptical about #MeToo. Thanks for sharing, Sean.
It’s a strange book because, on the one hand, Penn seems desperate to let us all know how woke and anti-Trump he is but, at the same time, it’s hard to read Bob Honey and not come away with the impression that Sean Penn really doesn’t like, trust, or respect women. Every woman who appears in the book is either ridiculed for being simple-minded or portrayed as being inherently evil. Honey is obsessed with his ex-wife, who drives an ice cream truck, for some reason. I kept expecting some sort of scene between Bob and his ex-wife but no. Instead, Honey just sees her truck and then let’s us know that everything’s basically her fault. It appears that the only reason she’s in the book is so Sean Penn can yell, “Ice cream truck! YOU GET IT!? ICE CREAM TRUCK! SYMBOLISM, YOU RED STATE PHILISTINES!” There is only one vaguely positive female character in the book but she’s only present in flashbacks and Penn spends more time talking about her vagina than her personality. Plus, she’s described as being hairless because … reasons, I guess. The book comes across as if Penn wrote it in between jerking off to his whore/madonna complex.
As I said, there’s really no plot. Bob Honey gets annoyed. A reporter bothers Bob Honey. Bob Honey thinks about how much he hates women. Bob Honey goes to Baghdad during the Iraq War. Bob Honey goes to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Basically, it’s a tour of places and things that Sean Penn has never experienced but which he has probably considered making a movie about.
(And, to give credit where credit is due, the books reads like something Uwe Boll would have vomited onto the screen.)
Here’s the thing: if you wrote this book, you wouldn’t be able to get it published and people would probably take your obsession with finding a hairless lover as evidence that you should be on a sex offenders list. Because Sean Penn is Sean Penn, he gets his book published and then gets to appears on talk shows to defend the stupid thing. If you’re a real writer (as opposed to someone who just woke up one day and said, “I’m going to write a book!”) and that doesn’t leave you outraged, then you’re not paying attention. Because as bad as Bob Honey is, Sean Penn’s second novel will probably be published as well. While you’re working hard on a fourth rewrite, Sean Penn will be appearing on Colbert and promoting Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff Part 2.
A lot of people have held up Bob Honey as evidence of Sean Penn’s stupidity. I don’t think he’s so much stupid as he’s just insecure. A common theme when it comes to anything that Sean Penn does appears to be a desire to be known as more than just a good actor. As a result, Penn directs overwrought movies that take themselves too seriously. (I mean, I liked Into the Wild but, even while watching that film, it seemed like a minor miracle that Penn restrained his instinct toward pretension just enough not to blow it.) He goes on talk shows and insists that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Hugo Chavez was a great guy and people in Venezuela are really, really happy. He takes it upon himself to let Oscar viewers know that “Jude Law is one of our finest actors” and he sends angry, profane notes to the creators of South Park. And, of course, he ends up writing books like Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. “Look, world,” Penn seems to be shouting with all of this, “I’m complicated! There’s more to me than you think!”
And you have to wonder: why not just take joy in being really, really good at what you actually can do? Sean Penn’s performance in Milk probably did more for the cause of human rights than any book he could ever write or speech he could ever give. And yet, apparently, that’s not enough.
We need good actors who are willing to give performances in films that might otherwise not get made without a “name” in the cast.
We don’t need a sequel to Bob Honey.
Hopefully, Sean Penn will rediscover his love of acting before writing one.