John Hodgman fathers hobo studies and upgrades everything you thought you knew about werewolves, zeppelins and J. Edgar Hoover in The Areas of My Expertise.
John Hodgman’s archive of fake ephemera, especially his seminal work on vanished hobo culture, is more than an almanac of hyperbole and anachronism. For the world did not need another endearingly antiquated compilation spun from conjecture, revisionism, old-wife soothsaying and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Those are the literary equivalent of junkshops with the rare gem of Americana (see Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack and The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which my father, an agricultural scientist and engineer, was known to bring home). The new and improved paperback of The Areas of My Expertise, rather, trumpets its total falsehood and qualifies any fabrication that seemingly encroaches on veracity.
Thus, "it is this astonishing innovation that allows each entry to contain more truth than if it were merely factual." That does not make it a parody but the inspired heir to almanacs’ legacy of malarkey. So forget the elation of junkshop discovery: the feeling here is akin more to dumpster diving and finding, beneath coffee grounds and condoms, papyri from the Library of Alexandria.
Such an unearthing may not be farfetched in the world cross-sectioned and quantified in An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in UsefulOrder by Me, John Hodgman A Professional Writer in The Areas of My Expertise Which Include: Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink, & Cheese (a Kind of Food), Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels, Haircuts, Utopia, What Will Happen in the Future, and Most Other Subjects. Actuaries, after all, are hired from international guilds, each with its own tattoo that "connects them to a kind of elite worldwide fraternity." Also, as it turns out, James Joyce’s Dubliners was initially telegraphed from the Titanic, though the final interconnected short story, "Please Save Us from Drowning," was never transmitted (from "Famous Novels that Were Not Originally Published as Books"). We learn Jack Lemmon counted himself among canine lovers, as "he took delight in tossing raw steaks to his Brazilian mastiff, ‘Diego,’ and to Walter Matthau," whereas Rasputin "made a bed for his Russian blue, ‘Tania,’ out of locks of virgins’ hair and snakes" ("Dog People v. Cat People").
One can interrogate this veritable curio cabinet about topics most whimsical and, more often than not, get a roundabout response. I wondered about sleuthing (yes, I did) and got "Idiosyncrasies of the Great Detectives." The same with prosthetics ("Nine Presidents Who Had Hooks for Hands"). Ninjas, submarines and bourbon distilling: rinse, wash, repeat.
These factoids and dictums are animated by Hodgman’s self-serious humor, laced with self-promotion, incredulity and, in places, rightwing conservatism. The latter recalls Stephen Colbert’s persona as a self-described "well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-class idiot" on The Colbert Report, though more tweedy and more of a connoisseur of facts albeit dreamed-up ones.
Following the Republican swipe of a certain key state in the 2004 election, Hodgman advises that the feds granted Ohio permanent red status. "If Ohio is truly a microcosm of America, goes the reasoning, then by definition it must be under Republican domination. Herewith, all of Ohio’s twenty Electoral College votes will flow automatically to the Republican nominee in every election, for all time, or until such time as elections are no longer necessary" ("The States, Their Nicknames, and Mottoes, and Other Facts Critical to State Travel"). Such fantasies create a peculiar logic that organizes miscellany and ephemera in a continuum of truthiness, helpfully cross referenced in footnotes — not a Wonderland of absurdity in which anything is possible.
Though his confabulations of the arcane and the mundane leap out of the blue, Hodgman himself has enjoyed increasing visibility. He plays the boring, clunky PC in Apple’s Mac ads; appears as a news contributor on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; pens a recurring feature for McSweeney’s, "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent"; and contributes to the Ira Glass phenomenon This American Life. He has garnered, moreover, an online cult following among hobo enthusiasts for essentially founding hobo studies — a heretofore unexamined field since "hobos did not leave many records. Those who were not illiterate were intensely superstitious and especially distrustful of ink… And in the makeshift railyard camps called ‘jungles,’ it was considered a virtue if you could legitimately and purposefully forget anything that had happened to you a week, a day, an hour before. It was for this reason that, while they loathed books, they loved magazines, and indeed would often congregate in periodical rooms of local public libraries to commune with the old news, the fleeting and the forgotten, and also to sleep and fart."
The chapter "What You Did Not Know About Hobos" rescues hobo culture from oblivion — or Uranus, depending on who you talk to — so memorably that hobo lovers (post-hoboists?) have drawn many of the 700 hobos whose names Hodgman set down for the first time, a list that expanded to 800 in the paperback edition (technically 799 due to the retraction and re-addition of Nick Nolte).
For the subculture of hoboism provides a worm’s-eye perspective by which to view much of Hodgman’s historical simulacrum. More than boxcar-riding boozers, hobos embodied the free-spirit antithesis of the American Dream, a renunciation of hearth and home for "hobohemia" from Reconstruction to the 1940s. Nevertheless, they devised their own money (hobo nickels), textile craft (lint knitting) and language in the form of hieroglyphs. An H with a sunburst, for example, meant the time was nigh to overthrow the government. Through biographies of notables like Hobo Joe Junkpan and Joey Stink Eye Smiles, the Hobo Wars unfold in fearful detail with Franklin Roosevelt creating polio in his "fireside lab" to rid the hobo blight, the photographer Walker Evans (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) as a covert hobo assassinator and even a hobo king’s royal herd of attack corgis.
Subsequent exegeses of hodgepodges are rumored to be in the works, though one can never be certain. Until then, only The Areas of My Expertise will chart constellations between science and the supernatural, Washington, D.C. and the Church of Satan, an obese boy eating corn on the cob and a cat consorting with a skunk, revealing how unfortunate reality is for not being as magical and unhinged as the mind behind these pages. For more information, look in the new release section, the reference shelf and dark alleyways.
(A tip for the road: be mindful that "Drat that Tard" is, despite its initial appearance, expressly not a palindrome.)
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