Author: Patton Oswalt

2011, Scribner

Filed under: Memoir, Humor

Anybody familiar with Patton Oswalt’s stand-up comedy career knows the man can spin a good yarn. His act is peppered with seemingly unrehearsed tangents, thoughtful wordplay, and absurdist ramblings that could be cobbled together and written down to form, at the very least, a collection of cracked-out short stories.

Oswalt’s success as a comedian relies on his ability to acutely observe the human condition and his willingness to root around in his own neurotic life, but it’s always a question whether the funnyman’s gift can function within the confines of a page as well as atop the stage in a dimly lit club. Oswalt answers well: the man can write, and his debut book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is hopefully the first of many more to come.

A word of warning: those expecting a light-hearted, funnyman’s romp may want to browse further along in the humor section of their local bookstore. Make no mistake, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a very funny book, but like Oswalt’s stand-up, the laughs come from a dark and truthful place. The book is a series of autobiographical essays, broken up from time to time by less serious “filler” material (a satirical wine tasting menu, punch-up notes on a fictional, idiotic comedy, etc). The essays detail Oswalt’s childhood and adolescence in the Washington D.C. suburb of Sterling, Virginia, his rocky road to a successful stand-up career, and his life in the entertainment-biz bubble of Los Angeles.

Nowhere in the book’s criminally short 192 pages does Oswalt forget that he’s a comedian. However, couched within tales of suburban wage-slave woe lurks a clear agenda. These memoirs are written with the express warning that our lives are miserably short, and becoming inert or satisfied with mediocrity is a criminally self-destructive act. Oswalt unflinchingly exposes his feelings towards those middling souls he has encountered on his journey to artistic fulfillment (equal parts contempt and heartache), but Zombie Spaceship Wasteland never feels angry or didactic.

In a chapter titled “Peter Renfola,” Oswalt discusses his complicated relationship with a mentally unhinged uncle, who, despite his own personal failings (or perhaps because of them), helped the author see past the neighborhoods he was born into. In a pivotal scene, Uncle Peter reads young Patton “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe:

…he read it like a little kid discovering it, making a poem about adult regret and loneliness seem like the greatest thing to a kid who thought coolness acted like the Fonz, sounded like Kiss, and rode a motorcycle like Evil Knievel.

It’s through passages like these that Oswalt brings new life to common coming-of-age memoir tropes. He continues:

Uncle Pete was the first one ever to heave open the gates that sealed ancient pages and make me suspect there were worlds within and without the world I was in. That there were worlds outside of the time I was living in. All of this he carried against his will, in his head. But unlike the other adults, with their resentments and their anxiousness or anger, he seemed eternally, uncontrollably entertained. I really envied him.

As the chapter concludes, the disparity in potential between the worlds raging in Uncle Pete’s head and his own insubstantial lot in life grows, affecting the young Oswalt most profoundly when he is informed of his favorite relative’s demise.

At this point in my life, I’d traveled over a fourth of the planet…I was still hungry to travel and move and create and connect—and I always will be—but I’ve got to admit something. There’s a little bit of Pete in me…I still don’t agree with spending a life the way Pete did, but I understand it and respect it. Who knows how many lives have been saved and villains vanquished by those who sat still?

Simultaneously conversational and elegant, Oswalt’s voice engages at a level that’s both persuasive and informative. Describing one of many revelations that led to his exodus from Virginia, Oswalt writes:

It’s only now, as I write it, on another coast, that I see what the time in the echo chamber of the ticket booth did. There were future musicians standing at the back of Fugazi shows, watching the band and the crowd and drinking in the pulsing thrum. They galvanized their identities while, at the same time, they bled faceless into the crowd, the band, the walls, and the memory of the evening. The book and the cassette tape—they did the same thing for me. People will find transformation and transcendence in a McDonald’s hash brown if it’s all they’ve got.

Encapsulated in these sentences is the overriding theme of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: inspiration comes for us in the smallest of ways, and we have the power to self-start and improve our situation beyond our meager beginnings. While the memoir trope of “if I did it, so can you!” is as tried and true as they come, Oswalt’s examination feels fresh and encouraging, and in uncertain economic times, fledgling creative minds may find solace, and yes, inspiration, in the author’s words.

Similar reads: On Writing, by Steven King; Fargo Rock City, by Chuck Klosterman