Image courtesy of Film Independent
Outspoken activist and actor Sean Penn is speaking in a new medium. Penn, lefty Hollywood’s enfant terrible, has publicly criticized President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq as well as his mishandling of the response to Hurricane Katrina, defended Venezuelan socialist Pres. Hugo Chavez, and helped raise funds for Haiti after its 2010 earthquake.
The film director and two-time Best Actor Academy Award winner (for 2003’s anti-child molestation movie Mystic River and for depicting a gay rights icon in 2008’s Milk), who was also Oscar-nominated three times, including for 1995’s anti-death penalty film Dead Man Walking, has now turned his formidable talents to a spoken-word format.
Penn has narrated a new work of fiction, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. According to press notes, the audiobook “captures America on the verge of political upheaval in 2016.” The freewheeling story follows the misadventures of its hermit-like title character, described as a “carnival carny, sewage specialist, and government operative.” Comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, likens Stuff to the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. This reviewer would add that the narrated novella has a Tom Robbins vibe, with a dash of Jack Kerouac tossed into the absurdist brew.
Globetrotter Bob Honey goes to many of the hot spots Penn’s peregrinations have taken him. There’s Baghdad before the start of Bush’s “shock and awe,” and where Penn personally met with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, close advisor to President Saddam Hussein; New Orleans where—like Penn—Bob assists Katrina survivors; Bolivia where Penn visited an imprisoned American and indigenous President Evo Morales; and South Sudan. Penn’s latest directorial effort, is The Last Face, an Africa-set aid agency drama starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem.
The eponymous protagonist also hits the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where the GOP nominee is not named, but referred to as the “Mussolini of Mayberry,” “Jesus of Jonestown,” and “the blonde one.” The narrator mocks Melania Trump as a “mail-order bride.” Stuff also lampoons The Donald’s incestuous lusting after his daughter Ivanka, and compares Trump’s sons to Saddam’s. If this reviewer heard correctly, the Trump character even shoots Bob Honey in the head.
The 56-year-old Penn performed a reading of Stuff on October 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater, presented by Film Independent. Penn read aloud for about three hours at LACMA’s nearly sold out 600-seat venue. The voices of Frances McDormand (Best Actress Oscar winner for 1996’s Fargo), Ari Fliakos, and Leila George were also part of the reading. George, sporting a long crimson wig, joined Penn onstage at LACMA; the other actors’ voices were prerecorded.
Penn, casually clad in cargo shorts, boots, and a blue work shirt, gave voice to Bob Honey with a deep drawl. Penn also wielded a high-power flashlight which he shone in the direction of audience members whose cell phones went off during the reading. Of all the screen characters Penn has played—convicted killer Matthew Poncelet in 1995’s Dead Man Walking, mentally challenged father in I Am Sam, Sgt. Edward Welsh in 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk—his onstage persona here was most reminiscent of Spicoli, the surfer dude in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Although Bob Honey’s supposed septic tank business sends him on his far-flung missions around the world, it becomes apparent that he may actually be some sort of covert agent. There are political passages, with mentions of the Middle East, Cuba, Nicaragua, genocide, and the 1971 The Anarchist Cookbook, with its instructions on how to make homegrown explosives and psychedelics. A bizarre contingent of “New Guinea tribesmen” seem to be a clandestine unit of an intelligence agency. And of course, the music of Phil Ochs appears multiple times, commenting about whatever is happening in the story.
Stuff’s author is purportedly Pappy Pariah, who, according to press notes, is an Iowa-born “reclusive, dazzling literary talent making his debut with this whacky and dreamlike story.” In a Q&A following the reading, Penn told the same dubious tale he has related on Maher’s HBO program—of meeting the improbably named Pariah in 1979 while attending a writer’s symposium in Key West, Florida. The many similarities between Pariah’s and Penn’s lives suggest this is a cock-and-bull story. In addition to their overlapping travels, both were born in 1960. This reviewer suspects that, although he denies it, Pappy Pariah is none other than Sean Penn’s “pen” name.
Regardless of its authorship, this unpublished novella is a picaresque, political whale of a tale. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is not currently slated to be turned into a movie and is only available as a two-and-a-half hour audiobook, which can be downloaded free exclusively from Audible Studios at Audible.com.
You can preorder and/or download the audiobook free of charge on October 18 at: audible.com/BobHoney.
Progressive readers can also listen to an exclusive advance five-minute selection at:
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell writes frequently for The Progressive and is author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.