ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND
By Patton Oswalt
Scribner, $24,191 pages
Comedy is the art of humorous critique. Few funnymen realize this more than stand-up performers, those folks who earn laughs by lampooning reality onstage. All the stand-up greats found their niche - Bill Cosby scrutinizes family, George Carlin authority, Richard Pryor race, Jerry Seinfeld modern society’s banalities, etc.
Patton Oswalt has made his muse pop culture’s imagination (or lack thereof). Reading his debut book, “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland,” one finds that Mr. Oswalt desires nothing more than an outlet for his creativity. Born into a military family (his father was a U.S. Marine), he was raised in Sterling, Va. Feeling stifled by mundane suburbia, Mr. Oswalt in his book recounts his escape into the realms of science fiction, fantasy, music and (most importantly) comedy.
Realizing this escapism is only a temporary solution, he abruptly leaves home for an offbeat career whose genesis gives “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” its grounding. The titular essay presents Mr. Oswalt’s thesis that young, creative minds can be separated into the categories of Zombies, Spaceships or Wastelands. Like their namesakes, Zombies shamble around monotonously, simplifying existence with apathy. Spaceships remain unanchored, landing in contact with others only to depart when attachment begins. Wastelands, for their part, destroy their old lives to create new ones.
“Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” finds Mr. Oswalt concluding that he’s a Wasteland. He sees his tendency toward destruction and subsequent re-creation as comedic, asking, “What is stand-up comedy except isolating specific parts of culture or humanity and holding them up against a stark, vast background to approach at an oblique angle and get laughs?”
The essays and sketches collected in “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” definitely are a Wasteland’s work. Mr. Oswalt’s writings break down the biography and reassemble it into a fresher, zanier medium. His life story is lightened by song lyrics, comics, fake greeting cards and more, effectively obliterating any sense of tradition in his style. It’s like hearing a joke set up in the familiar way only to have it end with an unexpected (yet still uproarious) punch line.
Laughter thus plays a huge role in “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland,” much as it must in Mr. Oswalt’s life. The gags range from the anecdotal to the absurd, zipping along with no direction besides Mr. Oswalt’s (and the reader’s) amusement. Points of interest include hobo-song analyses, snarky wine labels, a list of birthday presents from Mr. Oswalt’s grandmother and an epic poem about his final Dungeons & Dragons character.
With or without seat belts, it’s a wild ride. Perhaps recognizing this, Mr. Oswalt isn’t above making pit stops in surprisingly poignant recollections. His aforementioned Dungeons & Dragons phase, for example, lays the groundwork for an analysis of teenage awkwardness. His final character - a monstrous, lewd pariah named Ulvaak the half-orc assassin - provided Mr. Oswalt an escape from his own skin, an outlet he jokingly calls “comfort during the loneliest days of my adolescence … happy nihilism with an ebony sword.”
Equally affecting is Mr. Oswalt’s coming of age in Sterling. Working a dead-end job at a movie theater there, he found himself sleepwalking through his youth, experiencing nothing but “… self-contradicting confusion and an adherence to the routines and safety of the suburbs.” He soon wakes to new hopes and dreams, discovering in music and science fiction imaginary worlds that stimulate his budding creativity.
The inspiration resulting from these new interests emboldens Mr. Oswalt to hop aboard the comedy-club circuit. He performs on the West Coast for several years, and his hard work eventually helps him win a contest and earn a headlining gig near Vancouver, British Columbia.
This newfound success isn’t what Mr. Oswalt expected, providing readers with the book’s largest laughs. A bizarre mix of hostile crowds, cocaine addicts and competing performers teach him that happiness is an uphill battle, a revelation he happily shares with his literary audience. These disparate elements meet in a collision of coincidences I won’t spoil here, but rest assured it will split even the most serious bookworm’s sides.
The end result is a work that gains guffaws more often than not. When gags do fall flat, most will find “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” charming and heartfelt anyway. Mr. Oswalt’s wacky persona fits well on the written page, winning over skeptics with its mix of wit, ingenuity and integrity. It doesn’t always earn roaring laughter, but it does command rapt attention. Mr. Oswalt’s zest for life, irreverent humor and silly storytelling introduce a writer whose prose is no joke.
Mark Hensch is an intern for The Washington Times. He writes a heavy-metal music blog, Heavy Metal Hensch, for its Communities website.