Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff: What’s really behind Sean Penn’s foray into book-writing

credit: CBS

Sean Penn appeared on a recent Stephen Colbert show, and was interviewed extensively by the celebrity talk-show host. “So, what’s wrong with Sean Penn giving an interview on a popular talk-show?”, I hear you ask. Well, several things were “different” about this particular appearance.

First, Penn was talking about his just published book – his very first foray into author-hood – titled Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. Second, it wasn’t so much about what he said of the book that fired up the audience – as what he did: He smoked on stage – He lit up not once, but twice during his 2-segment interview! And that really fired-up the “Twitter sphere” with all sorts of opinions.

But that was vintage Penn just being what he is: A matter of fact kind of guy!

Revealing authorship motives?

What was interesting about the interview was some candid talk, from the plain-speaking actor, explaining how the book project came about. Penn openly admitted that acting didn’t challenge him enough anymore. The process of writing Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff was more of a creative outlet for the 2-time Oscar winner, than acting or directing movies was for him of late.

Making his frustration known about the stifling atmosphere in modern-day Hollywood, Penn alluded to the fact that part of the reason he’s taken to writing Bob Honey is because the “…creative process {in Hollywood} had become so self-censoring”, that it didn’t leave the veteran actor/director much room for personal creativity. Writing Bob Honey was his way of breaking free from that stifling environment, to embark on a journey that offered him much more control of his creative spark.

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The interview also gave us an insight into yet another motive for Penn to pen (yes, pun intended!) Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff – His urge to vent on the current state of American politics! Aside from his commentary on American politics, Penn has an extensive record humanitarian efforts abroad. In response to the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Penn founded a non-profit organization to fund relief efforts and help Haitians get back on their feet.

No time like now

With over 100+ film and theatre productions under his belt, Penn’s debut as a novelist has produced something of a darkly funny tale about a modern-day American man, who is an entrepreneur, septic tank salesman, and doubles as a part-time assassin who kills his targets – the aged – with a wooden mallet. So, why is the timing of this work of fiction so important, and what does it reveal about the author’s intentions?

To understand that, we’ll probably need to go back in time – just a bit.

The precursor to the book was a free audio version, based on the exploits of Bob Honey, that made the rounds during the 2016 elections. Back then, Penn floated the idea that the book was a work of fiction, largely of the creator of the character Bob Honey – someone he called Pappy Pariah. Colbert however questioned whether “Pappy Pariah” was really a euphemism for how Penn, a father himself, felt alienated and shut out – albeit like Bob Honey feels about his place in modern-day America: An outsider and a pariah!

The backdrop of the book feels a lot like modern-day America, where a landlord-like figure has ascended to power, and entrepreneur-turned-assassin, Bob Honey, doesn’t take kindly to that outcome. He therefore feels the urge to be “unbranded, unbridled and free…”.

“Bob Honey” seems to be an attempt by Penn to bare his soul about what he thinks is fundamentally wrong about today’s America. We know how deeply Penn felt slighted by the “shithole” comments that came out from the Whitehouse about some of the African nations.

Well, in the interview with Colbert, Penn seems to allude also to the fact that what happened in the 2016 elections was more because of the people who weren’t galvanized to voice their opinion, than due to those that were energized by any single political ideology. That seems to echo Bob’s outrage at voting Americans not endorsing the “unnamed” female candidate, which ultimately sees “The Landlord” rise to power.

As a result, like the central character in the novel, Americans today feel the urge to be “unbranded, unbridled and free”!

The book might also be based partly on Penn’s own worldly experiences – like his headline-making encounters with El Chapo. Bob too is a 50+ man from Southern California, who has a string of attachments to warlords from the Middle East, Drug Kingpins from South America, and influential characters deep inside America’s military complex.

credit: Comedy Central

Murky plot…that isn’t!

Bob Honey is seen by some as a fictional tale that essentially captures the zeitgeist of today’s America. Penn admits to Colbert that the book is a work of fiction – but then goes on to add: “It is, on other hand, also a kind of venting,”. Clearly, Penn seems to not like what’s happening in his version of modern America, and he wants some of that narrative re-written – hence the venting!

Bob goes around killing the aged, not because he holds a personal grudge with them, but because he believes that’s the right thing to do for society – and for the environment (a veiled reference to an EPA-hating Whitehouse – perhaps?). And, as has been happening in real life, Bob also threatens the President (“The Landlord”), by saying he (the Landlord) was not just someone “…in need of impeachment…” but also someone “…in need of an intervention” (yet another veiled reference to real-life America).

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Chillingly, Bob seems to justify his calling by saying “…we are a nation in need of an assassin”! And that statement leads to a light-hearted moment between Penn and Colbert, with the author confirming that he has not (as yet!) been contacted by the Secret Service to explain his motives for writing it (the comment about the need for an assassin).

The murky plot of the book, and more to the point, Penn’s interview with Colbert, is also evocative of many contemporary events unfolding in America today – and is a window into Penn’s views on them. He touched upon the #MeToo movement, and even made reference to the revolt by students against America’s gun control laws (or lack of them!).

credit: La Jolla Light

At its core, the book doesn’t have a formal plot – at least not one that’s overtly visible. But through his writings, the author is reconciling contemporary American politics with his personal life experiences. All of that stands out clearly, as Penn narrates Bob’s excursions to Baghdad during the Gulf War, and his humanitarian efforts during Hurricane Katrina – both of which Penn did in real life.

It’s therefore clear that his approach in the book is to use the ongoing political absurdity to battle with the absurd. If anything stands out at all in the book, it’s Penn’s realization of what America has turned into today, and his intense urge to take a wooden mallet to the country to fix what’s ailing it. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff relies on comedy and satire to bring that message to Penn’s readers.

Sometimes comedy is the best solution to public problems and, despite pronunciations by some critics that this is a plotless book, it seems like Sean Penn ultimately does have a valuable message.

What the future holds

While the Colbert interview garnered lots of online comment and backlash – it wasn’t primarily about the book, but about Penn’s smoking and his open assertion to being on Ambien to help him “…get to sleep after a red-eye last night”. However, Bob Honey did get some “dishonorable” mentions from a mainstream media. Some called Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff a dystopian book, whose author needs to be stopped!

Unphased by that reference, Penn was hopeful that the student’s outrage (over the lack of gun control) could spell real change in the mid-term elections: “then I might write a less dystopian book.”, he quipped. Does that mean Penn could pen yet another book – perhaps a sequel to Bob Honey – in the near future? We’ll have to wait and see.

Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff has already made Amazon’s Top 100, in a category that’s more in keeping with Penn’s outlook of what’s going on in America: Absurdist Fiction! So, could the future hold a Bob Honey movie for the actor turned director? Well, there might be – but not because of any movie-making initiative that Penn might undertake.

At 57, Penn seems to be all tapped out of the movie-making business. In a related interview he gave to The Associated Press while promoting Bob Honey, Penn indicated that he would fully support any director coming forward with a movie idea based on Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. However, Penn’s only financial contribution, to seeing his book hit the big screen, would be the price of a ticket to watch it!

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