Sean Penn’s first novel draws on the tradition of political satire, and in that light it’s a brilliant dystopian portrayal of contemporary American society. The story of Bob Honey who Just do Stuff isn’t really new, originally existing as the story of Pappy Pariah. Penn released that as an an audio book in 2015, but the present book expands the story quite a bit and drops the fictitious backstory of Penn meeting a real-life inspiration. Interestingly, Bob Honey who Just do Stuff was composed by dictation – which is fitting given the history as an audio book.
Bob Honey who Just do Stuff’s lead character is a septic tank salesman who moonlights as a government-sponsored assassin, which would seem absurd but then the idea is quite plausible given the present times. The lead character speaks very frankly about what he does, and at one point composes a letter to the (fictitious) President. Just as the rest of Bob Honey who Just do Stuff satirises contemporary American society, the letter offers a pointed and hardly-veiled rant lampooning President Trump which ends with the lines “Tweet me bitch, I dare you.” Bob Honey who Just do Stuff also takes jabs with the contemporary American obsession with branding, which of course is in line with Penn’s dislike of superficiality. One could easily be reminded of the sort of satirists that everyone thought didn’t exist anymore.
This is not to say that Penn’s work should in any way be immune to legitimate criticisms. The most important of these revolves around the seemingly unnecessary inclusion of a #MeToo poem by the lead character, deriding the movement as a “toddler’s crusade”. While the poem does highlight the fact that the #MeToo movement in some ways seems to equate all forms of sexual harassment, the general gist is that activism has taken things too far in calling out anti-social behaviours. “A platform for accusation impunity, has due process lost its sheen?” further highlights the focus not on survivors of harassment here but the destruction of accused men’s careers. While a focus on due process would work in an ideal world, the fact is that if due process actually worked then there wouldn’t be a problem to begin with. Penn notes how he’s fed up of divisiveness in society, and furthermore states that Bob Honey who Just do Stuff is a novel and not an opinion piece. Ergo, social equality and movements towards it are good while superficiality is simply idiotic.
All in all, Bob Honey who Just do Stuff is a fascinating debut novel from a man who’s always had a penchant for ruffling feathers and offers a pointed critique of contemporary American society. Some reviews call the book dystopian, but further introspection on prevailing realities might simply lead to calling the book pragmatic.