Penn Jillette: “God, No!”

12/06/2011 § Leave a comment

Those of you who have watched the television appearances of the libertarian, skeptical, atheist Penn Jillette — be it on political talk-shows or on his long-running Showtime series, Bullshit, or even his tamer new one, Penn & Teller Tell A Lie — already know that the big-hearted, big-mouthed Penn isn’t the voice of restraint.

His arguments aren’t the most lucid, but they’re often edited to be the most passionate, and there’s a sense, at the very core, that at least he’s being honest, particularly when he argues that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response to the question of climate change. Disagree with him or not, he’s an entertaining guy, and you’ll either love his new book, God, No! or simply like it, depending on how badly you feel he’s in need of an editor. Coming from a literary angle as I do, I’m in the latter camp: God, No! has its fill of interesting stories, but because they’ve been squashed into the context of a biblical framework — ten sections offering “suggestions” as alternatives to the “commandments,” some more connected than others — the storytelling is wildly disconnected, and occasionally repetitive, with Penn having to explain things (like his film, The Aristocrats) over and over again. This isn’t an atheist’s handbook, and in that sense there’s as much a feeling of a marketer’s deception as Penn describes feeling toward the so-called “Amazing Kreskin,” and yet, there are plenty of disclaimers (in the introduction, in the subtitle: “I’ve tried to throw in a couple of funny stories, and there’s a lot of rambling”). So you’ll get a lot of raunchy stories about Penn’s unfettered lifestyle: a letter he wrote to Penthouse describing underwater sex, a trip to the infamous San Francisco Club Baths in 1981, a party he threw involving Extreme Elvis (an overweight man who performs naked and often pisses on the audience), and a farcical (to us) scene in which Penn accidentally drops his penis into a blow-dryer. You’ll laugh, and occasionally, you’ll find a pearl to connect with:

Some will tell you “God is love” and then defy you not to believe in love. But, if X = Y, why have a fucking X? Just keep it at Y. Why call love god? Why not call love . . . love? “Beauty is god.” Okay. If you change what the word means, you can get me to say I believe in it. Say “God is bacon” or “God is tits” and I’ll love and praise god, but you’re just changing the word, not the idea. Some think that god will answer prayers. They think that their prayer can influence the behavior of an omnipotent, omniscient power. How do you figure that?

Through it all, there’s a real sense of Penn, from the conversational style of writing, flavored with some favored explicatives, to the incredulous tone he adapts when dealing with crazy shit and the quieter version that deals with awful shit, like the deaths of those we love. (The answer to how this particular atheist mourns — a ceremony involving the release of balloons — is one of the stronger sections; likewise, those that deal with his formerly religious family and his bonds to them. You know, the Fifth Commandment.) Given the language and some of the content, it’s actually more a manual for being a libertarian than an atheist; it’s not as slick as Bill Maher’s writing on the subject, but then again, Penn Jillette’s not trying to be slick, he’s trying (and succeeding) at being Penn Jillette. (And if it one day comes out that this work has been ghost-written? Kudos to the ghost-writer.) Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of atheism; it’s just not the center of this book, despite the title.

There is no god, and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

No, the center of this book is Penn, a man who, when he appears on TV to “spout [his] nonsense” is “always waiting to be proven wrong.” If he believed in it, he’d play the devil’s advocate on a wide variety of topics. Instead, he throws out whatever’s on his mind — Jamie Gillis from New Wave Hookers? Really? The way he was once treated by a makeup artist who couldn’t deal with him being “the model”? The appeal of Bruce Springsteen? Ron Jeremy for the Supreme Court? The strongest sections are those that clearly argue for atheism, or which speak on the subjects Penn has the most experience with — magic and family. This is where having an editor would help, and with no disrespect to Simon & Schuster (and no knowledge of what this book originally looked like), perhaps some of this content might have been best held for another rainier day. But hey, then again, this is just my gut reaction to passing a few hours with Penn’s voice rattling through my head. And like him, what can I ultimately say as to the subjective quality of this book, really, other than, “I don’t know.”

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