Last week, Reason TV released an interview with Penn Jillette, who talked about the 2016 election, his admiration for Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, and how the hard-core libertarian magician lost over 100 pounds by following a plant-based diet.
I can't recommend Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, Penn's just-published diet memoir, enough. As with all of his writing, it ranges far and wide from the putative topic in ways great and small and is immensely entertaining. And if you have any taste for extremes, especially when it comes to food, you will not be disappointed. Penn's chronicle of his nutritional regime and farewell to the "Standard American Diet" (or SAD) as directed by heterodox guru Ray Cronise is endlessly compelling, inspiring, and exhilirating.
As I write in a new column for The Daily Beast, Penn is a relentless seeker who is constantly inquiring about new things, new ideas, new ways of being in the world. In this sense, he's a lineal descendant of Jack Keroauc (just as Dylan and Reed are in their own ways), but with a life wish rather than a death wish:
Presto!...is a convincing brief for a nouveau-Beat sensibility of extremism in the pursuit of health and longevity, a 21st-century version of Jack Kerouac's hosanna to the "mad ones," the "ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars." The main difference is that Kerouac drank himself to death before reaching 50 while Penn, now 61 and a life-long teetotaler, is trying to live as long as he can both because as an atheist he believes there's nothing after this life, and because he has two kids whom he doesn't want to have "to deal with [him] dropping dead of fat when they're just teenagers."
After decades of chowing down on what he derides as the "Standard American Diet" or SAD—think huge, Cheesecake Factory-sized portions of everything fried, battered, sweetened, fried, and salted—Penn was not only obese but depressed, constantly winded, and on multiple blood-pressure drugs. His descriptions of his pig-out sessions—buttered steaks, movie theater popcorn covered in oil and Milk Duds, Cinnabons chased by sweet drinks, and hunks of cheese slathered with peanut butter—would give Dr. Oz vicarious diabetes. Penn's come-to-Jesus moment (if an atheist can be said to have such an epiphany) came when he had a stent put in his heart and his doctor told him he either needed to lose a ton of weight or get stomach-shrinking surgery within six months.
Having been given "official permission to go crazy" in pursuit of dieting, he soon found himself under the care of Cronise or "CrayRay" (short for "Crazy Ray"), who put Penn on a two-week regimen of only eating potatoes as a way to reset his cravings and taste buds. Slowly after that, Penn started adding back other vegetables and whole grains, small amounts of hot sauce, and eventually fruit after hitting his maintenance weight. His medical problems disappeared along with the flab but, ever the skeptic, he repeatedly cautions his readers about taking advice from a "fucking juggler whose only higher education was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College." He is, he admits, only "a zealot wearing a broccoli suicide vest to Burger King."
Throughout Presto!, Penn reminds the reader not to take diet or life advice from a guy whose last brush with education was a stint at clown college (literally). Maybe, maybe not. But reading Presto! reminded me of what people said when they heard the debut LPs of the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols: They made you want to start your own band. Presto! is like that. Whether you want to start eating like Penn (or John Mackey of Whole Foods) or not, this book will make you want to get busy being born in some new and interesting way.
Here's the Q&A we did: