A few years ago, on a podcast, I listened to Dave Hill tell what is perhaps the most gruesome, cringe-inducing Manhattan travel story I have ever heard in over two decades of living there. Every so often, while descending into the bowels of New York City’s subway system, it will still fill me with a queasy anxiety. The tale involved a subway platform, a belligerent homeless man, a large Gatorade bottle filled to the brim with bodily fluids, and those fluids being hurled as a missile at our innocent and startled narrator. A lot of people could probably spin a pretty decent yarn out of material as rich (and distressing) as all that. But the way Hill related the event was particularly captivating. Rather than play up the story’s outrageousness, he took a more understated approach, his demeanor at times suggesting a breezy sense of wonder about the horror that had befallen him.
This sensibility is hard at work in Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the author’s second collection of biographical essays, following his 2012 début Tasteful Nudes. Hill is best known as a multi-talented comedian, musician, and radio personality (he hosts The Goddamn Dave Hill Show on WFMU), but before gaining attention for those pursuits he was a freelance journalist, and he hasn’t stopped writing since. The time he put in clearly paid off. More than a few books written by comedians – even incredibly talented ones – suffer from not quite being able to reflect their author’s unique comedic persona. A line of thought that might work great onstage, spoken in front of an audience, can lose a lot of its magic when it’s put down on the page to be read. But Hill, rest assured, has the enviable ability to get the peculiarities of his personality across using the written word.
The personality that animates every page of his book is that of the lovable slacker, the neér-do-well creative type who fully intertwines both his passion for the artistic life with his desire to have as little responsibility as humanly possible. Of course, we’ve seen this archetype before, in comedy and elsewhere. But Hill sets new benchmarks for indolence. Chronically unemployed into his thirties, when he was often without a permanent home address, he refuses to look for jobs on the internet if the pages don’t load fast enough for his liking. He considers the fact that his siblings “had all gotten married, bought homes, and went and moved their personal belongings into those homes” to be evidence of their “concerted effort to show off.” He is apt to remind the reader that he wrote much of Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore while in his underwear.
Unsurprisingly, there are many pages in which members of the author’s family express confusion, concern, and irritation about his career path; after all, living out of your sister’s childhood room as a grown man can only get you so far. In one particularly amusing essay, Hill’s sibling arranges for him to see a life coach who is meant to nudge him toward at least thinking about some sort of legitimate, income-producing profession. (Hill warms to the idea only after learning that his mother will foot the bill and that he can do the sessions over the phone, thus relieving him from the colossal burden of leaving his bed.) A few months later, the life coach quits. She tells Hill she can’t, in good conscience, push him to pursue a more normal, nine-to-five life. It’s unclear whether this is because she has sufficient faith in his artistic abilities or no faith at all in his ability to show up for work, fully clothed, at 9 A.M. every morning.
But even as he’s attempting to become the Hunter S. Thompson of slacker culture, Hill does still manage to involve himself in a few real adventures. On a whim, he helps a Catholic priest put on Mass inside a Mexican prison where, sometime in the not-too-distant past, cartel leaders decided to up-and-murder the warden (“a dick move by all accounts”). He lands a gig writing ringtone slogans for rising television star and aspiring leader of the free world Donald Trump (early proposals that land on the cutting room floor include “Please stop showing up here for work, okay?” and “Die, you anus!”). And he learns about the cruel realities of his own “fame” when he headlines a panel of “industry professionals” at a show-business seminar that only one person attends. (Also included in the book is his violent encounter with the subway-dwelling homeless man.)
Too many of the stories, however, seem thin or underexplored. The book is very loosely structured around the author’s quest, in the wake of his mother’s death, to better understand his father, the “mysterious man” he’d been “running into down in the basement all these years.” It’s also an attempt to figure out how Hill became such a unique artist-slacker extraordinaire in light of the fairly traditional upbringing he received from his fairly conventional family in suburban Cleveland. But Hill only breezes across these subjects’ surfaces. The reader isn’t quite sure what to make of Hill’s relationship with his father, which remains indecipherable until the end, and we’re not given all that much insight into how the comedian ended up different from everyone he grew up around. A lot of comedic and emotional territory seems to have been left unmined.
Still, Hill has real literary ability, and when the material is rich enough he can take you on an incredibly zany ride. The brightest example of this occurs when he describes the ordeal of going through with the panel on show business despite the fact that the industry professionals who are on it outnumber the audience by a factor of at least three to one. He oscillates hilariously between pride, hatred, agony, self-pity, and shame; he fantasizes about strangling the lone attendee for forcing the event to stagger on, and he curses his own desperate need for recognition that made him sign up for this disaster. He also, of course, finds the justification to blame his parents for his misfortune. “If they would have just given me the love and attention I so deserved during my formative years,” he writes, they “could have helped me avoid all this to begin with.”
That’s Dave Hill for you. He will charm you with a beguiling mix of delusional bravado and self-effacing frankness. And he will come clean about the fact that he is often too lazy to put on pants when he writes, while at the same time assuring you that the words he crafts are still the stuff of timeless classics.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.