Author James Hoby
There is, in our culture, a voyeuristic tendency that somehow compels us to constantly observe the lives of others. This is why people are always tying to spy on their neighbors. It is also why reality television is so successful and the country has an obsession with pop icons and celebrities.
James Hoby’s second book, A Year with the Hoopers, parodies this phenomenon by providing us with a candid and unwitting glimpse into the lives of a fictional family, the Hoopers. Inspired by the real-life find of discarded personal documents, Hoby’s book is a random collection of letters, notes, emails, school assignments, brochures, greeting cards and other forms of communication. Part the Jerry Springer Show, part The Addams Family, Hoby uses these snippets to reveal the personal idiosyncrasies of his characters and in the process takes an amusing, satirical look at contemporary American life.
Hoby’s book is particularly relevant today, given the recent success of a wide range of media that allows us to observe other people’s lives to a degree previously unheard of like: Found Magazine, its corresponding books, the expansion of This American Life to television, YouTube, and MySpace. All of these are challenging the conventional notions of what is public and private but they also allow us to get even closer to answering an age old sociological question: what is normal behaviour? Taking his mark from this question, Hoby challenges our concept of normalcy by creating a troop of seemingly odd characters who find themselves surrounded by individuals more freakish and ridiculous than themselves.
Among the most interesting characters the Hoopers find themselves involved with is Gertrude Greathouse, the aunt of Hooper family matriarch, Helen. Within the collection of documents we find several last wills and testaments written by her. Each is radically different in tone and content and often bitter and confrontational. One goes so far as to instruct her attorney to inform the IRS on Helen’s husband, John.
Another interesting character is Xenophon Munny who Helen believes may have witnessed a traffic accident she was involved in. We see a series of letters from Xenophon providing unlikely or fantastic reasons why he could not have witnessed the accident including seeing a smoking cat and having to tend to the estate of a six-hundred pound woman. We later learn that Xenophon fabricated these stories to mask his real activities, at the time of the accident, which greatly embarrassed him.
By creating this world around the Hoopers where eccentricity and peculiarity abound, Hoby has actually highlighted the tragedy of contemporary America—alienation of the youth, alienation of the old, the emptiness of suburban existence and the relentless search for meaning and purpose.
In this book, Hoby demonstrates a good use of hyperbole and is outright hilarious in spots. However, A Year with the Hoopers is also filled with a good deal of inane humor and demonstrates serious limitations in Hoby’s command of voice and characterization. He fails to provide each character with a unique voice, instead uses the same tone and tempo throughout the book. In addition, there are quite a few instances where the character’s word choice and language structure are inappropriate for them. This is seen most clearly in the writings of Helen’s daughter Jenny where the character speaks more like a well educated middle-aged man than a high school aged girl.
Despite these problems, A Year with the Hoopers is deceivingly smart and innovative in form. Furthermore, its randomness and episodic composition give it a light, easy flow that makes it a good read for the odd moments when you’re not trying to get a glimpse of your neighbor using the toilet.—Anthony Squiers
The above review was contributed by: Anthony Squiers is a writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at Southwestern Michigan College. His writing has been featured in a number of print and online publications including Southwest Michigan Magazine and Recoil Magazine. CLICK HERE to read Anthony's Reviews.