Patton Oswalt’s Flying Saucer

I discovered Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by delightful accident. Patton Oswalt, the lonely schlub Spence from King of Queens is a favorite stand up comedian of mine, and one of the few working comedians today who can give Louis CK a run for his money. However, I was pretty skeptical about the book. Even the best comedians have a sad history of transcribing their act down on paper and calling it a book in a lazy and transparent cash-grab — remember Seinlanguage? But, I grabbed Zombie Spaceship Wastelandanyway. I knew I could count on a few disposable laughs, and then figured I would go my way.The book consists of essays chronicling Oswalt’s journey from awkward, pre-adolescent, Star Wars acolyte to his early days wandering the barren roads of the comedy circuit, in no particular order. My personal favorite, “Ticket Booth,” accounts Oswalt’s high school days working in a locally owned multiplex. This tale best exemplifies the author’s potent mixture of hilarious prose and soul crushing insight into the complexities and inroads of the human psyche. Oswald can send the gut reeling and keep a sardonic tone, even when dealing with world of local theater:

Who would rise to take the reins at the Towncenter 3? Who would push through the double glass doors of the street-level entrance and stomp his way down the stairs, like Gene Simmons and Wilt Chamberlain about to set a basement full of uppity pussy straight?

Yet there is a touching intensity here; Oswalt experiences adolescent epiphanies through the graces of R.E.M. and Philip K. Dick, all while working the ticket booth.  The comedian re-lives childhood days spent with one leg in this world and one leg in the wonderland planet of his imagination. Oswalt successfully plays the funny and absurd against the sad and meaningful, evoking the same spirit embodied in Freaks and Geeks, a much loved (by more than just me) but short-lived television series. The title essay, “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland,” transforms adolescent peers into zombies, inhabitants of a wasteland, or living in space; each responds to life by simplifying, escaping, or destroying their world. The theory doesn’t quite hold up, but it makes for a fascinating read.Another essay, “Peter Runola,” explores a young Oswalt’s introduction to the magic beyond the veil of everyday life, while witnessing his uncle’s descent into madness. As his uncle retreats further into the hedges of schizophrenia, he becomes the symbol of a man stuck in a small life:

Still, the world felt bounded. 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.

Like David Sedaris, he captures the virtue of not fitting in, and the sense of otherness that drives a creative mind to explore the world.There are a few missteps. A series of comically strange greeting cards as well as a wine list from hell start out amusing but become tedious and repetitive. But, if you loved Catcher in the Rye and were offended by the Star Wars prequels; if you love This American Life and Indiana Jones with equal gusto, then go and find Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. It’s “for us, by us.”
Amy Heishman

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