Friday, 17 December 2010

The Two Faces Of Tom Bodett

One of the marvels of American literature is that you never know where the next genius is coming from. This is especially true of the demotic genre of humor. Who could ever infer from the homely precincts of Hannibal, Missouri, that it would nurture the false hick schtick of Samuel Langhorne Clemens? Or that. Columbus, Ohio, could engender the laureate of the quintessentially neurotic husband and wife of James Thurber?
So it should not confound us that the newest original voice of American humor hails from “The End of the Road”, viz., the village of Homer, Alaska, which failed to break the 4,000 barrier in the 1990 census.
Thirty-four-year-old Tom Bodett actually hails from Sturgis, Michigan. A drop-out from Michigan State, he lit out for the territory in his 20s, had a bad accident working timber in he Alaskan panhandle, and shortly thereafter landed for good in Homer—which proudly calls itself the Halibut Capital of the World, based on a fleet of almost a hundred charter fishing boats.
Easterners generally assume Bodett started his writing career doing droll pieces for Homer’s public radio station, KBBI-FM. But the editor of the state’s largest-circulation paper, the Anchorage Daily News, corrected me: “He broke into print doing pieces for our Sunday magazine.”
The KBBI humorous bits caught the ear of “All Things Considered” producers, and before you could say Motel Six, Bodett had a lucrative contract as the voice and writer of self-deprecating promos for the cheapest motel chain in the country.
He and a fellow Homerite, piano-playing composer Johnny Bushell, made their strongest pitch for national attention in a 67-week, hour-long variety show featuring the characters from “The End of the Road” that ran on more than 100 commercial radio stations nation-wide.
Part of Bodett’s new book, The Big Garage on Clear Shot: Growing Up, Growing Old and Going Fishing at the End of the Road (William Morrow, $18.95), is the straightest talk I’ve ever read about the perennial difficulties of growing up and growing old in blue-collar America. But another smaller, sharper part is Joe Sixpack quiche-bashing. (Press coverage of Bodett’s hometown audiences for the radio show indicate that the quiche-bashing plays better than the sociology.) On the sociology side, it’s easy to see that scheme working itself out successfully.
Norman Tuttle is on the cusp of 14, and the chapters that deal with his being bullied at school, being caught red-faced if not red-handed as his girl’s first babysitting assignment aborts when the parents come home unexpectedly, and being accepted as a near adult on his first deer-hunting trip are marvels of observation clearly presented.
The other side of Bodett’s muse may play harder—though it reads better. Take congenital liar Doug McDoogan, whose errant whittling prompts “a blue rinse lady from Anchorage” to turn him into the hottest folk sculptor in the 49th state. Joe Miller, a college dropout from the Midwest, moves into the next apartment, and the way they watch sci-fi episodes on a TV with no audio is delectable parody.
In another episode, Bodett has his sociological radar turned on, and the way the fishing boat captain finally accepts the greenhorn Joe by giving him his own coffee mug is a masterpiece of understatement. But there are definitely two Joes rolling around in Tom’s head.
It will be interesting to see how this Janus-faced young writer learns to deal with his built-in paradox: He’s himself a Joe Sixpack at heart, with a very, very short fuse for upper-middlebrow foolishness.
If achieving universal significance from the raw data of your own quotidian turf is the mark of a good writer, then Tom Bodett is a voice to watch. He’ll be leaving the lights on for us in more ways than one if he can fuse those two visions into one.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 26, 1991

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