Sean Penn Breaks New Literary Ground with “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff”

Even before the literary world at large met Bob Honey, the titular character (and his famous author) were turning that world on its head. Dark, satirical, and quite strange, “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff” was released as a hardcover novel on March 27, after enjoying a cult following as a shorter, audiobook version. The creator of "Bob Honey" is a houseold name, an actor-turned-director and California-native who can now add "novelist" to his resume: Sean Penn.

A Dystopian Contradiction in Satire Form

On the surface, "Bob Honey" projects itself as an enigma of sorts -- a novel for the counterculture written by a celebrity -- a multi-millionaire Oscar winner, in fact. The title borders on the nonsensical. But 57-year-old Penn's debut novel is much more: A trippy, seething look at modern society through the eyes of a madman. The book is part social commentary, part vanity project, and readers may want to arm themselves with a thesaurus before sitting down to read "Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff." Penn's stream-of-consciousness prose style isn't as polished or coherent as that of his now-counterparts Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Robbins, both of whom he's been extensively compared to by critics . But Penn's obvious writing jitters are to be expected; "Bob Honey" is his first novel, after all.

Bob Honey: A Modern Take on Dunces

The novel's protaganist, Bob Honey, is a disillusioned Jack-of-all-trades who works as a mercenary assassin on the side. Pure in his raging indignation of societal ignorance and what he considers injustice, Bob serves as a sort of modern-day counterpart to "A Confederacy of Dunces'" Ignatius J. Reilly. Where John Kennedy Toole’s infamous Reilly stays positive and self-confident through the numerous trials that seem to test his morality and lifestyle, Bob Honey easily falls into despair. He’s also a terrorist of sorts; an active political dissident who favors assassination and arson over letter-writing campaigns and sit-ins.

Penn himself has made it no secret that the book stems from his own political beliefs and is meant as a general criticism of the current political administration and modern Western society in general. In an April 2018 Rolling Stone interview, he declared, “America's a complex place that's doing all it can to be without any complexity at all.” Complexity is all in a day's work for Bob Honey, who takes a hands-on approach to political dissidence, literally getting his hands dirty in an effort to quell the perceived drain on society.

The Innovative Style of "Bob Honey"

As expected when an actor branches out into other art forms, Penn's literary debut has been extensively critiqued and scrutinized, garnering both honorable accolades and dismal reviews. Penn's writing style itself, peppered with hints of beat poetry and gonzo journalism, has been praised in certain entertainment circles . Hinting at its core message, "Bob Honey is introduced with a quote from Jack Kerouac’s "The Dharma Bums," a fictional answer to capitalism that was released in 1958. While the political climate in America and across the world has drastically evolved since the Cold War, cultural similarities remain — a connection that Penn’s Bob Honey is happy to address. One doesn't need the quote, however, to see the parallels between Kerouac's acclaimed prose and Penn's emerging style, which embodies the essence and lyrical rhythm of beat poetry.

But Penn isn't content to use only a few poetic tools: "Bob Honey" is saturated with alliteration and ten-dollar words. While some critics have questioned the novel's language, few can argue that many alliteration phrases are downright impressive. For instance:

"There is pride to be had where the prejudicial is practiced with precision in the trenchant triage of tactile terminations."
"His dreams desert daylight diffusion dictated disturbances in the void of visual detail."

Some readers have expressed frustration with Penn’s heavy reliance on alliteration while critics have pointed to the same literary tool as a unique feature that sets “Bob Honey” apart. Indeed, Penn seems to have painstakingly chosen his words (albeit with ample help from a thesaurus) in a way that conveys a sort of whimsical innocence — you can tell that the actor had lots of fun writing his debut novel. A large amount of gossip regarding "Bob Honey" is centered on the novel's epilogue, taking on the uselessness of social media as a tool for activism and social change. The epilogue is a six-page, free-form poem directly criticizing the U.S., with telling phrases such as, “cyber wars a’wagin” and “net neutrality no more” as well as references to the children of Yemen dying and the 2017 country music festival shooting in Las Vegas.

A Real American (Anti)hero

Bob's weapon of choice is a mallet, but as assassins go, he's versatile and adaptable. Victims also meet their demise via shark-infested waters and helicopter crashes. Like Toole's antihero Reilly, Bob changes jobs frequently and boasts a diverse employment portfolio, from installing fireworks shows to selling industrial-sized septic tanks. The tale of Bob Honey is presented by narrator Pappy Pariah, a fictional character whom Penn once claimed actually wrote "Bob Honey." Initially released as an Audible book, the novel opens with transcripts of numerous police calls and citations regarding the protagonist's "odd" habits. Complaints against Bob Honey from neighbors on Sweet Dog Lane include "excessive lawnmower noise" and a questionable haircut described as akin to that of a "Nazi or woodshop teacher."

The novel's convoluted title stems from a Station 2 run-down of Bob’s daily routine: “He knows how to get up in the morning…and just do stuff.” That stuff varies from killing the elderly to obsessing over his redheaded ex-wife, even as he embarks on a co-dependent relationship of sorts with a hairless woman named Annie. Bob also becomes an unlikely pen pal to "The Laundry," the incompetent president of the country and thinly veiled Donald Trump clone. While maintaining that the book is completely fictional and that he is not Bob Honey, Penn nevertheless has parallels to his protagonist. When discussing "Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff" with Trevor Noah on the Daily Show , Penn praised some of Bob's more endearing qualities. According to Penn, Bob Honey is "compelled to service" of his country, something he believes he himself missed out on as a young man. So perhaps Bob Honey reflects who Penn could have been in another life, in another time.

Challenging the Status Quo

To be certain, "Bob Honey" isn't an easy read -- some readers might find Penn's alliteration and general prose style to be clumsy and exhausting. But fans of stream-of-consciousness and a reading challenge that rivals "A Clockwork Orange" won't be able to put the novel down. Equal parts satire, social commentary , and pulp fiction, "Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff" delivers what Penn intended it to: Relevance and notoriety. Like Norman Mailer, Penn believes that democracy is "fragile," the actor told Trevor Noah. "Bob Honey" is his response to the current state of the world and the "character of leadership," a quality Penn believes the current U.S. president is lacking.

Is "Bob Honey" absurd? Certainly. But that's sort of the point, as far as Penn's concerned. In Penn's vision of a dystopian future, the government secretly kills those they deem as "undesirables," needlessly leeching natural resources and producing excess methane. Although “Bob Honey” is his first book, Penn is no stranger to the craft of writing: The actor has penned six shorts and screenplays, including 1991’s “The Indian Runner” and the acclaimed yet tragic counterculture survival tale “Into the Wild.” Penn directed both film adaptations. For his, most recent screenplay , “The Gunman,” Penn handed the director’s chair to Pierre Morel but took on the starring role of Terrier, a mercenary and sniper. In short, an assassin just like Bob Honey. With the two stories written in a span of a few years, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection, however unconscious.

Sometimes Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Sean Penn has never been afraid to make waves, and both his political stance and somewhat stormy personal life have raised more than a few eyebrows over the years. Penn has referred to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez as "my friend" and, more recently, commented the #MeToo movement. Penn's passion for social justice most likely spawned the first seeds of what became his debut novel. To The Landlord, Penn's Bob Honey writes, "Though the office will remain real, you never were nor will be." It's not hard to imagine Penn writing the same words to Donald Trump. However, the prolific actor-turned-director maintains that his debut novel is nothing more than just that — a fictional story. “I think, we're in a sad state where fiction is attributed to opinion,” Penn told Rolling Stone .

Final Thoughts

In a literary world saturated with self-help books and assembly line paperback novels of little substance, "Bob Honey" is a breath of fresh air. The burgeoning author has plenty of opportunity to hone his style and further play with words after he finishes the book tour for "Bob Honey." According to Penn, another novel is already in the works. In a recent phone interview with Vogue , Penn hinted at plans for a lengthy literary career. Happy with his self-imposed acting hiatus, he wants to write "for the foreseeable future."

For now, Penn says he’s enjoying the autonomy and independence afforded to fiction authors. Time will tell if Penn's literary output will be as influential as his work on film, or if he'll enjoy the long-term success and notoriety of Thompson, Robbins, and Toole.

Find the full NYT review here for more information on Sean Penn's first novel.