Sean Penn wrote a novel. That Sean Penn: the actor who I believe peaked in 1982 with a turn as the dumbest stoner alive in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and these days tends to make headlines by interviewing the notorious head of a Mexican drug cartel or whenever we want to rehash his alleged history of violence.
The book, titled Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, first surfaced in 2016 as a dumb audiobook read by Penn, but at the time, he denied he was the author, claiming it had been “written by Pappy Pariah, a man he had met at a bar in Key West, Florida, in 1979.” I doubt anyone believed him then; regardless, he’s now ready to take the credit, slap his name on a garishly designed print edition with blurbs from Salman Rushdie and Bill Maher, and hit the talk show circuit, where he’s already making noise about quitting acting to write this shit full-time.
Awesome. Really awesome.
Outside the back cover, praise for the book is in short supply. The Huffington Post’s intrepid Claire Fallon calls it “an exercise in ass-showing, a 160-page self-own,” and most critics are in agreement. Yet Penn’s ill-advised foray into the litbro scene is hardly some anomaly. Whereas famous women reliably turn out vulnerable memoirs and witty essay collections that stand in a kind of dialogue with their careers in TV and film, a certain kind of male star is drawn as if by a siren song to the altar of Major American Fiction — narrative prose that delivers big ideas, biting satire, and a broad diagnosis of society’s fractures. What else would motivate Penn to include a lengthy #MeToo poem?
Oof. Still, you wonder how Penn’s material stacks up against stories from other actors who’ve made the somewhat puzzling leap from stage to page. So let’s get to ranking.
5. Steve Martin
As a banjo-playing comedian and sometime auteur who published riffs in the New Yorker before taking a stab at serious fiction, Steve Martin would seem to have the most promise among actors-turned-novelists. Indeed, his debut novella Shopgirl is widely considered a respectable effort, while the follow-up novel The Pleasure of My Company may be even better; 2010’s An Object of Beauty proved more divisive. It would be easy to write Martin off for writing a love triangle that joins a depressed young woman with a womanizing middle-aged millionaire or geeking out about his rich-person hobby of art collection, sure, but let’s examine a stray comment from Shopgirl, in many ways a novella made up of observations that can be disarmingly earnest as well as unfounded.
To Mirabelle, the idea of being an object of obsession is alluring and represents a powerful love. She fails to understand, however, that men become obsessive over beautiful women because they want no one else to have them, but they fall in love with women like Mirabelle because they want a certain, specific part of them.
This is representative of Martin’s style — quite dry, and not inelegant, but in the end pedantic. It is what the MFA workshop would call “telling, not showing,” and it feints at Tolstoyish universal truth without convincing. It’s not as if we don’t believe there are men who compartmentalize or micromanage their various attractions, yet the strain of turning this cocktail-party wisdom into plot is far trickier than Martin realizes. That is to say, you could read Shopgirl pretty fast and barely wince, though why not wait for the movie?
4. David Duchovny
Here’s a curious case. David Duchovny is best-known as Fox Mulder on the generation-defining series The X-Files, yet he writes suspiciously like his washed-up author character Hank Moody on Californication: breezy, conversational (while not slipping down to pure stream-of-consciousness), and too enamored of its try-to-keep-up tone. On the wacky premise front, Duchovny’s novels Bucky F*cking Dent and Holy Cow promise more than Martin’s flatlands — the latter, his first, concerns anthropomorphic farm animals attempting to escape the farm and therefore slaughter — and there’s an appeal to his direct silliness. He offers, however, a thin, dad-joke-style execution; you get the sense he might pivot to Dave Barry humor omnibuses for reading on the toilet. Check out an excerpt of Holy Cow’s opening:
Just trying to get certain things out of the way. Let’s see, oh yeah, how am I writing this, you may wonder, when I have no fingers? Can’t hold a pen. Believe me, I’ve tried. Not pretty. Not that there are many pens around anymore, what with all the computers. And even though we can think and feel and be funny, we cannot speak. At least to humans. We have what you people used to call an “oral tradition.” Stories and wisdom are handed down from mother cow to daughter calf, from generation to generation. Much the way you receive your Odysseys or Illiads. Singing, even. Sorry for the name-dropping. Homer. Boom. I’ll wait while you pick it up.
If you’re not annoyed by Fox Mulder doing this smarmy “adult fable” schtick a decade and a half after Chicken Run and pretending it’s the vegetarian sequel to Animal Farm, then by all means, pick up a copy. But you’re only encouraging him to keep it up.
3. Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks is perhaps the most likable actor in Hollywood, an everyman bar none, and his short stories — one of which also appeared in the New Yorker — do little to ruffle that reputation. The results are as blandly innocuous as his most forgettable films; he slips easily into cliché, and an essential takeaway of the whole exercise is that, gee, there sure are a lot of electronic internet gizmos these days! (The most objectionable aspect of Hanks’ aesthetic is that he composed all this on vintage typewriters, a choice never as relevant as any nostalgist suspects.) Anyway, here’s a slice of “Three Weeks,” a story on about a new relationship with a woman who turns out to be rather domineering:
I made pulled-pork burritos. She drank wine. I drank beer. She started a fire in my Franklin stove, saying she felt like a pioneer woman on the prairie. We sat on my couch as night fell, the only lights being the fire and the audio levels on my sound system bounding from green to orange and, occasionally, red. Distant sheet lightning flashed in the storm miles and miles away.
I mean…like…fine? Hanks can put an image or realization across, just not the reasons we should care, and the writing itself is too drab to sustain interest. Over the following days, this girlfriend enrolls the guy in a punishing self-improvement plan of her own devising, and he goes along with her, and that’s pretty much it. Not exactly vital stuff.
2. James Franco
Now we delve below the merely boring, sketchy, or undercooked fiction of actors to reveal the raw sewage. With an MFA from Columbia University and a genuine friend in his one-time professor, the novelist/blurbing maniac Gary Shteyngart, the perennially overcommitted James Franco ought to have had a shot at relevance when he released Palo Alto, a collection of linked stories, in 2010. I can’t do much to flay this dud that Publishers Weekly hasn’t already — they condemn his “egregiously gleeful dosage of homophobia and puerile race-baiting” and conclude that he “fails to find anything remotely insightful to say in these 11 amazingly underwhelming stories” — but allow me to share with you a Franco sentence so poorly conceived that I cannot forget it:
If you imagine that Franco is just messing with us…well, it’s godawful either way. He lives in a place beyond human syntax or revision, throwing out whatever pops into his head and stopping only to take Adderall. Clearly he believes that gratuitous sex and violence have the same transgressive power they did in 1935. Most galling is that he knows nobody would want this in a movie — he used his book deal to take out the trash.
1. Sean Penn
I wasn’t sure Penn could be worse than Franco. But I should never have doubted him. While the boy wonder was doing the lazy millennial’s update on Bret Easton Ellis, the actor’s actor was honing a borderline-sociopathic homage to the late David Foster Wallace, attempting paragraphs of mind-erasing density that mean far less than nothing.
Congratulations, Sean, on discovering alliteration and the thesaurus at the exact same time — you sound like you’re having the world’s most pretentious stroke. And by inflicting your psychosexual baggage upon the rest of the world, you have committed the novelist’s cardinal sin: assuming anyone gives a shit. To your credit, you embrace the egomania and that fuels the actorly delusion of becoming a respected man of letters, the next Faulkner or Fitzgerald — the self-regard that prompts leading men to assume that because they play humans, they can relate to them, actually teach them something about the planet they navigate without Hollywood’s help every day. But good novels don’t teach; they don’t condescend or scream about ass juice to get a reaction. Novels, like movies, are entertainment, no matter what their message. Penn’s mistake is to separate the media by intent as well as form, to place books on a higher pedestal than film, and so the narrative he comes out with is a disjointed abomination that substitutes unpleasantness for intelligence, confusion for cerebral pleasure. It fucking sucks.
But congratulations to him. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is sure to go down as the hardest faceplant in the history of vanity publishing — unless James Woods starts writing.