Fiction: Sean Penn, Satirist, Swings at America in a Wild Debut Novel


Sean Penn

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

By Sean Penn
176 pp. Atria Books. $24.

What have you done this time, Sean Penn? What is this book-shaped thing that lies before us? Is it just a lark — a nutty novel you wrote because you’re famous and they let you? Or is it more than that — a furious, despairing takedown of America as the country battles its own worst instincts? If it’s the latter, why did you bury your truest feelings and loveliest writing so deep in muck? “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff” might have had the power of a manifesto. Instead, it’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma and cloaked in crazy.

Penn originally created “Bob Honey” for a short audiobook in 2016, which he narrated but playfully denied writing, insisting it was the work of a guy he’d met in Florida named Pappy Pariah. Bob is a 56-year-old Californian with “an ultraviolent skepticism toward the messaging and mediocrity of modern times.” Profession-wise, he is one of the following or some combination thereof: a globe-trotting entrepreneur, a contract killer who murders elderly people with a mallet or just a delusional homebody whose neighbors think he’s weird.

Unwaveringly true to its title, “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff” has no formal plot. Our antihero sits on his sofa recalling possibly imaginary exploits and lamenting the state of the nation, which he regards as “a shopping mall with a flag.” He loathes his ex-wife, who’s now happily coupled with her divorce lawyer and driving an ice-cream truck, the twinkly music of which punishes him from a distance. He pines for a sex-positive young woman named Annie, who may or may not exist and who inspires such purple rain as this: “Effervescence lived in her every cellular expression, and she had spizzerinctum to spare.”


Occasionally, Bob will attempt to be more social by throwing a misbegotten barbecue — or he’ll go out and dispatch a senior citizen with a blow to the head. (The folks who issue the kill orders believe the elderly stand in the way of marketing and globalization.) What narrative tension “Bob Honey” does have comes courtesy of a man claiming to be an investigative journalist who shows up at Bob’s door and, as Penn might put it, punctures his peace and piques his paranoia. If that sounds like an unfair swipe at the prose, take a look: “There is pride to be had where the prejudicial is practiced with precision in the trenchant triage of tactile terminations.” That’s a sentence about hunting, by the way.

To be fair, “Bob Honey” is perplexing and unquantifiable by design. Penn has clearly ingested the Beats, as well as Hunter S. Thompson and Chuck Palahniuk, and he evokes their trippiness to advance a sincere argument: that right now, America is enough to drive any rational, empathetic person nuts. Some of Bob’s adventures — helping victims of Hurricane Katrina, nosing around Baghdad at the outset of the Iraq War — overlap with the author’s own habit of following his conscience and not waiting for invitations. That seems like a nice, self-effacing wink to the reader, suggesting that Penn the Untamable Activist is also just figuring out stuff as he goes.

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