“I am a straight white man, the hero of almost every story I had ever encountered,” writes actor and humorist John Hodgman in his introduction to “Vacationland” — a hilarious and irreverently sincere collection of personal essays. “The idea that the world could continue without me was not only unimaginable, it was insulting.”
And so Hodgman — host of the “Judge John Hodgman” podcast — faces his mortality as he journeys into middle age, delivering each piece with his signature wit. He was born in a hospital in Cambridge, Mass., lived in Brookline, Mass., early on, then moved to rural western Massachusetts, in a house that he would eventually come to own after the death of his mother.
Throughout the book he is sure to remind readers — and himself — that he studied at Yale, the campus of which was designed to resemble Oxford and Cambridge. He realized that he fell in love with Yale because it was like a stage set, “the concept of college.” There he studied not literature, but literary theory; not books but rather “the concept of books.”
In time, he graduated, married and moved to Brooklyn (“You are surrounded by people younger than you whose sense of style is to look like you”).
Eventually Hodgman and his wife, son and daughter acquired a house in Maine — the so-called vacationland of the title. The “waters of Maine are made of hate and want to kill you,” he writes of the freezing ocean, and the “Lovecraftian hellscape” must be at the bottom of every lake.
Throughout the book Hodgman is charmingly arrogant and self-deprecating. In explaining Maine humor, he refers to the popular radio series “Bert and I,” about two Maine fishermen, performed by Yale comedians in unintelligible Maine accents. At 45 and evaluating his life, he writes, “at least I’m not a middle-aged, Yale-educated phony peddling half-funny stories about the state of Maine.”
Parts of the book he has used in his live stage appearances, and at times you get the sense that he’s delivering a monologue, and it works nicely on the page. His friend would introduce his shows with “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman.”
It is when Hodgman focuses on his children that he is at his most playful, and when thoughts of mortality creep in. On one rainy day he takes his daughter to visit Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which he describes in “Graveyard Fun.” He’s dressed in an overcoat with a hood, wearing sunglasses and his onetime trademark mustache, while his daughter wears a red jacket with yellow boots. There they roam the cemetery, fantasizing of becoming apparitions to the other visitors, so that, as he tells his daughter, “we will live forever.”
Mark Rotella is the author of “Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria” and “Amore: The Story of Italian American Song.”