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A.J. Jacobs in a promotional photo for "Drop Dead Healthy" (Michael Cogliantry)
A.J. Jacobs in a promotional photo for "Drop Dead Healthy" (Michael Cogliantry)

The Daily Review, Tue., Apr. 24

The king of shtick lit strikes again Add to ...

If participatory journo par excellence A.J. Jacobs didn’t exist, no doubt Simon & Shuster would be forced to invent him. In a time of plummeting hard-copy sales and profit-eroding e-book litigation, Jacobs writes bestsellers that dovetail practical how-to information and advice with an easygoing, gently amusing fluency.

Jacobs is on the third of what the marketers at S&S refer to as the “self-improvement trinity.” First, in The Know-It-All, he read the Encyclopedia Britannica in an effort to be smarter. Then, in The Year of Living Biblically, he spent a year adhering to biblical teachings in an effort to ascend to a higher moral plane. Now, in his third book, he spends two years eating, exercising and researching his way to becoming “the healthiest man in the world.”

So convinced are his publishers of his prodigious talents that the advance review copy (complete with raised red lettering on the cover) includes a more-than-slightly pleading letter from Jacobs’s editor, one Ben Loehnen, asserting (just in case you, fortunate reviewer, were in any doubt) that Drop Dead Healthy “will make you laugh until your sides split and endorphins flood your bloodstream. It will alter the contours of your brain … it will move you emotionally … you are in for a wondrous and rigorous read.”

At any rate – and not that it matters – having been commissioned to give my honest assessment I feel it incumbent to, you know, tell you what I actually think.

In a word: meh.

Jacobs is the poor man’s Bill Bryson (and the even poorer man’s Geoff Dyer). His aim is to be both a completist and funny about a serious subject, the problem being that the information is nothing you haven’t seen or thought before. In sum, he suggests, quoting “fitness expert” Oscar Wilde, “Be moderate in all things, including moderation.” One wishes that, in doling out bromide after obvious bromide, Jacobs were more willing to take his own advice; exercise, get plenty of sleep, wear comfortable shoes and blah and blah and blah.

As for all those promised yucks, Jacobs’s preferred technique is the classic howl-inducing setup/punchline structure. In keeping notes, I started listing the one-liners but soon ran out of room.

For instance, Jacobs has a super-health-conscious aunt, Marti, who is forever correcting Jacob’s “research,” all the while pointing out his inadvertent toxicity. He writes:

“The upholstery on car seats is on Marti’s list of hazardous substances. Many have the flame retardant Deca. Here’s how committed Marti is to living a toxic-free life: When she bought her Toyota Corolla, she left the car on the street for six months before she drove it. Six months to let the upholstery emit its noxious gas. After a raw-food lunch, Marti goes to visit grandpa, and detoxify his house. I hug her goodbye, even though I transferred all sorts of chemicals onto her.” The italicized “six months” is there just in case you need a little extra help with the setup. As a humorist, it’s safe to say, Jacobs leaves nothing to chance.

In short, if you prefer your jokes served up like a hanging curveball to Jose Bautista, this is the book for you.

That said, A.J. Jacobs remains the current heavyweight champion of shtick lit. And now that he’s completed his trilogy, one wonders what might be next. A primer on how to be wealthy and (falsely) self-effacing seems the obvious choice.

Douglas Bell co-wrote the film Afghan Luke , nominated for this year's Writers Guild of Canada prize for best screenplay.

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