Welcome back, dear readers, to our continuing odyssey through the mind of actor-turned-author Sean Penn. Feel free to peruse parts one and two of our five-part literary voyage, or just grab an oar as we continue our trip down this prosaic river Styx.
Station Seven: Sexual Dungeons
I’ll avoid leading you on, dear readers: there are no literal sexual dungeons in this station. In fact, there isn’t much of anything here except disappointment, on both my part and Bob’s. After returning from Thousand Oaks, Bob ponders his hated wife yet again, the “chubby fuckin’ redhead whose ghost still whorishly haunts his bed” (56). In a Charlie Sheen-esque moment, Bob also proudly considers himself. “Bob is particularly moved by, and admiring of, wolves for their gait and monogamy. In his heart, he knows himself to be a hybrid. Not a ‘dawg’ [Penn’s quotes] but yes, a dog. A house pet with wolf blood” (55). After deciding that yes, he is very cool, Bob decides to take a walk outside. He comes upon Helen Mayo’s house, and her glaring at him from an upstairs window. The two have a stare-down before a helicopter falls out of the sky and crushes Helen’s house, obliterating her. Her Chihuahua “runs from the wreckage blind, ablaze and barking throughout his meteoric dash across the street before crashing headfirst into the curb, where his incineration croaks, crisps, and collapses him curbside with the immediacy of a grand piano’s lid prop’s pull” (57). Despite literally coming out of the blue, this development is a real let-down for me. It’s not that my earlier prediction of Bob either bedding or directly murdering Helen is wrong, but because the Honey-Mayo rivalry had so much potential for Pennian soapboxing that is now wasted. Helen could have turned out to be just as insane as Bob, and teamed up with him on a Bonnie and Clyde type of rampage. Or she could have led the might of the Neighborhood Watch, replete with torches and pitchforks, in a siege of Bob’s home. At the very least we could have gotten some condiment puns out of it. Alas.
Bob is approached by Spurley, who seems to be the only person doubtful of the coincidental nature of the accident. He explains that his employers have tasked him with investigating not Bob specifically but the type of person Bob matches: “The individualist. The archetype. Mailer’s White Negro. That fella on the block, nobody knows him. He’s a loner. Antisocial. Maybe he has a dark secret? You know what I mean? Something seemingly sinister. A scheme. A schedule. A sexual dungeon. That kinda thing” (59). First, I encourage all of you to google Norman Mailer’s extremely problematic essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” if only to help ground Penn’s weird amalgamation of liberalism and racism. Second, attention must be paid to Penn’s perhaps accidental labeling (dare I say branding?) of his label-rejecting, brand-defying protagonist, if only for the sake the resulting chuckle had at the author’s expense.
Bob sends Spurley away, explaining he has no sexual dungeon, and contemplates Anne some more. Poor Bob, he has no wife and no Anne. Poor Bob, he’s 56 and past his prime. Poor Bob, he’s so lonely. I presume, dear readers, that we are meant to empathize with our protagonist here. Perhaps Bob’s erotic memories of Anne are the titular dungeon in which he is clearly trapped? I’m not sure if it’s because the author has covered this ground already, or because we know almost nothing about Anne save that she tends to nonchalantly misplace her sex toys, or maybe it’s because Bob Honey is a holier than thou murderer for hire, but empathy for him I do not have.
Station Eight: Insect Homicide 2016
Just in case you were considering feeling bad for Bob at the close of the previous station, we get this one. Nothing outlandish happens—Bob takes a walk and ruminates—but he does reaffirm his disgust with every other human. Millennials: “Though dumbification clearly plays a leading role in herd immunity to wisdom, Bob, a man so significantly self-educated, attributes this populist lapse more to a forfeiture of this electorate’s youth’s truths” (66). Mainstream liberals and all Trump voters: “Now comes into craze this ubiquitous shock and dismay while witnessing fellow citizens fall witlessly to fascist forays” (66). Women: “Getting older in America is tough on a woman; seeing what she’ll do to avoid it is tough on a man” (71). Bob’s favorite target for vitriol, his ex-wife: “The lovechild of unobtanium and transparent aluminum, she has more baggage than inventory in her physical excesses and ice cream trucks” (71). Incidentally, Bob’s unnamed ex-wife’s ice cream truck business is extremely successful, or so we are dismissively told.
Perhaps the only other item of note in this chapter is the following gem: “Behind decorative gabion walls, an elderly neighbor sits centurion on his porch, watching Bob with superstitious soupçon. Bob sees this. Feels fucked by his own face” (71). I don’t know about you, my dear readers, but that one got an audible laugh out of me.
Station Nine: Religious Tourism 2015
For reasons that are not yet clear, we’ve gone a year backward in time instead of forward. This station has very little to do with the previous one, making them almost interchangeable. Why have 2016 first? Time and Penn may tell. This station begins with Bob sojourning to the Bolivian section of Lake Titicaca (heeheehee) to set up a fireworks display at the behest of President Evo Morales (sadly, there is no cameo). Really this is just an excuse to get Bob to Bolivia, where he happens upon “‘Wanted’ posters that pictured a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who had been imprisoned on a bogus money-laundering charge” (73-74). Bob goes scuba diving because “The only expectations of a man at that depth were to see, breathe and monitor his own heart rate” (74). After waxing maritime, Bob returns to his previously unmentioned barge, where he is confronted by the fugitive Jew. “Vat ver you doing down d’ere?” (75) screams the runaway, having snuck onto Bob’s barge. A footnote translates the question as “Jew-speak for ‘What were you doing down there?'”(75). Take a pause to digest that word-for word footnote as necessary, dear readers. The Semitic Stowaway introduces himself as Fischel, and asks to join Bob on his journey back to California. Bob relates to Fischel, who also has an ex-wife, and accepts. As they sail, the two come across the yacht of an unnamed Mexican cocaine dealer. On said yacht the two strangers drink and dance aplenty with the dealer himself and his lover, “a gyrating and bikini clad curiosity of cryptozoology” (77). The party comes to a stark end when Mexican authorities raid the yacht not one page after Bob and Fischel arrive. Bob, Fischel and the dealer escape (the latter in a private submarine). The crew is left battling the authorities to no clear conclusion. The only explicit death is the lady’s: “She sharted agave shimmering spirits and shifted shit-faced overboard, landing boozy, bird-glass bleeding feetfirst [sic] into a shiver of fifty frenzied sharks” (79). Given the trend of graphic deaths and distrust heaped on women so far, it might be wise to start betting on whether Sean Penn is more racist or sexist. Choose wisely, dear readers.
After escaping the drug bust, Bob and Fischel make it to San Diego, where they are accosted by the Coast Guard. As Bob’s record is examined, we learn that he just happens to pop up in political hotbeds at historically relevant times, from Belfast in 1984 to Macau in ’86, 2003 in Baghdad, Tehran in 2005, Egypt and Tripoli in 2011, settling with “Chile to Managua to Mexico City in 2015” (81). Bob is eventually released after passing each excursion off as either a business venture or “religious tourism” (81). He opts to abandon Fischel to his fate, opining “He’ll understand if I go. Spiritual people do” (83). Thus the chapter closes.
Having reached the end of what the book somewhat alarmingly calls “Part One” I feel obligated to point out that nothing has actually happened, plot-wise. Perhaps that is the point. Bob Honey, after all, just do stuff. My concern is that the novel doesn’t actually seem to be building to anything. To elaborate, I am worried that, without a sense of rising tension, the book peaked with station five’s dildo funeral pyre. Join me for part four, dear readers, and we’ll find out together if this concern is well-founded.