Credit: Elizabeth Rice

The word “osmosis” was thrown around liberally last Thursday night, as if no one was quite sure how Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff happened. Not even the novel’s author, Sean Penn—a Hollywood A-lister for four decades—could offer a satisfactory explanation.

So celebrated Chicago author Stuart Dybek could be forgiven for being unclear about the book and its provenance. They couldn’t have been a less likely duo, walking into a dark, spare room at Everybody’s Coffee in Uptown with their coats still on, as if the Book Cellar, which paired the two for a conversation about Penn’s new—and first—novel had plucked them at random from the street.

But put them together and you have the so-called (by Studs Terkel, among others) Bard of the Blue Collar chatting up . . . Jeff Spicoli, and Penn knew it. “When great writers are talking to you about your book, it’s a kick,” Penn said, but it was Dybek who was repeatedly dumbfounded. His questions failed to coalesce. His description of the book was followed by “I don’t know how to put a question to that,” a phrase he reprised several times throughout the hour-long talk, which was held just a day after Penn’s son was arrested on drug charges.

It’s not surprising given that reviews for Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, released last month by Simon & Schuster, have run the gamut. Many critics admire its creativity, while others have panned it as unintelligible drivel. Dybek clearly fell in with the fan faction, calling Penn and his novel “the real deal,” and praising its Chekhov-like callbacks, even if he couldn’t quite put a finger on how or why came together.

Credit: Elizabeth Rice

“You couldn’t possibly have thought this, but underneath—correct me if I’m wrong—”

“No, I may be learning something,” Penn interrupted with sincerity.

The novel follows the titular character, Bob Honey, who has struggled with the modern world since his divorce. “A paragon of old-fashioned American entrepreneurship,” reads the publisher’s description, “Bob sells septic tanks to Jehovah’s Witnesses and arranges pyrotechnic displays for foreign dictators. He’s also a contract killer for an off-the-books program run by a branch of US intelligence that targets the elderly, the infirm, and others who drain this consumption-driven society of its resources.”

Penn decided to write a novel when he decided he needed to retreat from the 2016 presidential election. He felt himself yearning for greater creative freedom than acting and directing provided. Part of it was also a reaction to the media frenzy surrounding his October 2017 interview with the fugitive Mexican drug lord El Chapo.

“I could feel myself falling out of love with what I was doing, but not the creative process,” Penn said. He added that the experience was “a little more demanding of self-reliance than collaboration [in film or theater]. I had exactly the performance in my head that I needed. It was very much like acting, with someone making the choices you would like them to make.”

But the book seemed to create more questions than answers. Even the genre was unclear. Dybek called it a book of “constant, nonstop invention” and a present-tense dystopian novel.

“I hadn’t even known the word ‘picaresque’ when someone suggested that was the form I’d written in,” Penn said. He prefers to call it “humor in hopelessness: the less hope I put in, the more I find myself laughing.” The political scene, he said, was like the cosmetic surgeries he used to watch on TV. Friends accused him wrongly, he said, of nervous laughter, but it was the absurdity of the unnecessary violence of the procedures that gave him the giggles. “Hopelessness is something we don’t have to do,” he said.

Honey’s response to that hopelessness is to threaten the president of the United States with assassination. Asked about reactions to that aspect of the story line, Penn said, “There were some questions [from readers] I thought could have been more cheerful, but I shouldn’t have to explain satire, so I won’t.”