Comedian, author and podcaster John Hodgman’s second memoir-in-essay collection, Medallion Status, is ostensibly built around his obsession with the loyalty program of the airline he calls “Beloved Airlines,” and the travels, specifically for acting jobs, he’s had in connection with earning those miles. It’s a weird premise for a book, honestly, and if I hadn’t already read and unequivocally loved his previous one, Vacationland, I’m not sure I would’ve picked this up.
Hodgman has a dry sense of humor and singular voice that makes just about any story interesting, and they also tend to veer off into unexpected but hilarious directions. He manages to make his life anecdotes, loosely themed around moving through various “secret rooms” of the elite rich ‘n famous with his personal anxiety in tow, appealing. I say this as someone who still hasn’t seen any of his acting work, besides some vaguely remembered Daily Show bits. The problem is that, knowing what his previous book proved him capable of — a special soul-touching blend of humor and melancholy in confronting reality, love, getting older, notions of belonging and being an outsider, etc. — this one doesn’t quite hit the same high highs.
The life stories here are less polished than those in Vacationland, and he acknowledges that upfront. He says writing this book was hard whereas writing that one was easy, because he’d been honing that material for so long in his comedic work. The stories had already been told, he’d worked out the funniest or most affecting parts and knew how to highlight those to great affect. These are recognizable as having the same source, but without the fine precision and impact that characterized his others.
The topics are mostly different too, despite all being scenes from his life. He has more strange fixations to reveal, it’s not only about his airline loyalty program obsession. His competitive online Scrabble tendencies especially cracked me up: “I told him there is no Words with Friends in this life: there is only Scrabble, with enemies.”
I found that his writing about his personal life, as opposed to the professional, Hollywood-centric side, is just much stronger. He hits his stride writing about his family and home, his own brand of awkwardness or knack for being in odd situations and making them odder. Not that all his writing has to be like that, he’s allowed to diverge in his art, but it’s so obviously where his strength is. The way he portrays his town and neighbors, and creates senses of community and its disruptions — like when a stranger enters, were so perfectly done. When we return to one of his New England small-town settings in the aptly named “A Stranger Comes to Town,” he’s clearly in his element.
Although these can feel a bit rough or unfocused, his wry style is always delightful and they’re still the same mix of funny irreverence and surprising sentimentality or nostalgia that characterized Vacationland. I didn’t love these quite as much, but I still loved them. And maybe it’s not even fair to compare so much but I can’t help it when that book was near-perfection. I’m happy to have anything to read from him, honestly.
“Two Buildings in Florida” was a favorite, where he recounts two of the secret rooms he “could not crack, and they were both in Florida”: Scientology’s Flag Land Base and Donald Trump’s “tacky palace” Mar-a-Lago. He gets close to both while touring Florida with the Boston Pops (it’s a whole thing) and perhaps you can imagine where this adventure goes and it’s wonderful.
One of my favorite anecdotes was this, from “Secret Family,” about the time he tried to procure scrapple in LA via Twitter, and he enlightens the uninitiated about what scrapple is:
If you do not know what scrapple is, the name really says it all: it is mushy gray cake of cornmeal, sage, and leftover pig hearts, livers, tongues, and skin. In Philadelphia and Baltimore and some other places, you cut it into crumbly slices and fry it and then you eat it on purpose, because it is delicious and hilariously honest. It does not hide what it is. The only more truth in advertising it could offer were if it weren’t called scrapple but “Genuine Gray Offal-Loaf.
I hope that other Mid-Atlantic natives who unwittingly ate gray offal-loaf at our grandparents’ houses for years before one day finally reading the packaging and nearly choking will delight in this story as much as I did. Plenty of amusing and heartfelt anecdotes from a quirky life. 4/5
Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms
by John Hodgman
published October 15, 2019 by Viking
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.