Though best known for his stand-up comedy, Patton Oswalt has been successfully bringing his distinctive sensibility to a variety of mediums for years. Because so much of Oswalt’s comedy revolves around his encyclopedic knowledge of and appreciation for high and low art, his appearances in films (ranging from Ratatouille to the underappreciated Big Fan) and television shows (including an extended cameo in Dollhouse and a recurring role on United States of Tara) are like stamps of quality. Given Oswalt’s enviable versatility, it’s unsurprising to see him branching into the world of literature with the part-autobiography, part-comedy book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. And considering the high quality of the projects that Oswalt normally associates himself with, fans have every reason to have high hopes for his full-length print debut.
They won’t be let down, though the book is marred by its lack of a consistent throughline and by the unevenness inherent to essayistic literature by stand-ups. Oswalt scores early with a grippingly detailed, hilariously worded, and movingly bittersweet chapter chronicling his misspent years as a directionless movie theatre usher whose cultured tastes (R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction was his soundtrack to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) provide a contrast to his depressingly inert social life. Oswalt displays a real talent for prose, and his voice makes an easy jump to the page. But the less autobiographical chapters tend to seem like rough drafts of stand-up routines, minus the crucial vocal delivery that would sell the jokes. A chapter about made up hobo folk songs might be hilarious if Oswalt were actually belting out the ridiculous lyrics onstage, but the jokes are only vaguely amusing in the context of the book. And some of the more silly material would’ve been much more interesting and insightful if Oswalt would’ve drawn from real life rather than making up joke scenarios. Surely the veteran script doctor has some amusing anecdotes about movies he’s been tangentially involved in, but the only allusion to this aspect of his career is an overlong note on improvements for a hypothetical romantic comedy script.
Fortunately, the chapters tend to be short enough that even the less successful parts breeze by, while the more intriguing bits are infectiously re-readable. A chapter about Dungeons & Dragons manages to make the game sound surprisingly fun without downplaying its essential nerdishness, while the titular chapter’s analysis of the three types of stories that young fiction writers tend to gravitate toward is simultaneously biting and touching. Even the inevitable “shitty clubs I played when I was a struggling young comedian” chapter is full of trenchant social observations and vivid accounts of strip mall sleaze. At only 189 pages, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland could be called slight, but its finest moments will leave readers restarting at page one and clamoring for a followup.