As a stand-up comedian, Dave Hill has learned the value of hooking his audience quickly. His debut book of essays, Tasteful Nudes…and Other Misguided Attempts at Personal Growth and Validation, is funny from the Introduction, which is to say the unabridged version of the Introduction, because the abridged version is just mildly amusing, which is all Hill really had time to develop in five short sentences. In the unabridged version, he addresses readers directly, extolling the virtues of his work despite his initial reluctance to write a comedy book that might impugn his artistic integrity. But who could resist the four hundred bucks St. Martin’s Press offered to change his mind?
That gives a pretty good impression of Hill’s humor and what the book has to offer. A goofy, good-natured bravado permeates his essays, at times threatening to cross into genuine narcissism. Hill mostly avoids that by diving into activities with aplomb. Whatever is next up, it’s going to be the best thing he’s ever done, and if he’s lucky, the best anyone has ever done in the same position, whether that’s being an aide at a homeless shelter, playing “On Eagle’s Wings” at his church as a kid or touring Japan with a band.
It’s hard to gauge how seriously to take Hill. In “As Of Now, I Am In Control Here,” Hill is quickly confronted by the gritty details of working in a homeless shelter (including cleaning and medicating a resident with scabies, among other things). He is proud of himself for his promotion, until he realizes most of his co-workers are addicts and often wind up relapsing and leaving the job.
He writes about his own depression in “A Funny Feeling,” likening it to “swallowing a small bomb that is perpetually threatening to go off in five minutes, five hours or maybe even five days—you’re not sure—and not being able to mention it to anyone.” He ends the book with “Bunny,” a tribute to his mom at the end of her life, including a couple of tender scenes of mother and son bonding over cookies. No matter whether it’s someone else’s life or his own that has gone off the rails, Hill never stops joking. He cheerfully resists moralizing and spends little time dwelling on self-analysis.
That doesn’t mean there are no epiphanies. Hill usually just refuses to present them as anything but the consequence of his own experience. And when they do pop up, they are often wrapped in a joke. He points out in “Funny Feeling” that someone suffering depression doesn’t deserve pity. “Not now, not ever,” he writes. “Unless, of course, that pity ends up leading to sex, in which case I’m all for it. In fact, I’m sitting here right now and I feel absolutely worse than ever.” A gig at a prison that started out as a joke winds up producing so much anxiety that when Hill winds up surviving it, he is more able to relax and it lessens his depression: “I even found I could accept McDonald’s completely unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary removal of the McRib from their menu as just a part of life.”
The tone of Nudes is predominantly light. Hill covers a “clothing optional” cruise for a radio show and finds himself unexpectedly joining in the fun. He dedicates himself to becoming the best hockey player in his Cleveland high school, imagining fortune and worldwide fame, even though he is not a great athlete and no one really cares about hockey in his hometown. He dreams of rising to fame as a party Santa Claus, or a pedicab driver (or peddler?), and actually achieves some success with his college rock band, Sons of Elvis.
Predictably, Hill finds he is not really suited for the task at hand, and is relatively accepting of the resulting disappointment. There is usually a silver lining, and having gone through the experience often seems satisfying enough, despite expectations. His rock ‘n’ roll fame may have been fleeting, but he got four gigs of packed houses singing along with his music and learned the joys of high-tech Japanese toilets. When his mother traps him in an awkward pseudo-blind date with his childhood priest to try to inject some religion in his life, the experience is miserable, but he learns how to tell his mom “no.”
Hill has told some of these stories on the radio show This American Life, to which he is a frequent and ideal contributor. He tells small, compelling stories, each imbued with the distinct fingerprint of his personality. There is personal growth and validation by the end of the book, but the arc may be hard to define in exact terms. At least it’s obvious, despite any disease or depression encountered along the way, that Hill enjoyed the ride.