Once you’ve made it, it’s hard to resist the urge to take a victory lap. For those who’ve succeeded in a big way on a large stage, the lap usually takes the form of a book, in which thinly disguised self-glorification attempts to pass for genuine reflection and introspection. And yet in his memoir Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt, who has racked up impressive achievements in stand-up, movies, and television, not to mention his status as the standard-bearer for alternative comedy, abstains from even the mere hint of self-satisfaction. Rather than just dully chart the path that led him out of obscurity and into startling professional success, the comedian instead focuses the gaze of his memory on the days before stand-up was even a glimmer of a dream to examine exactly what it is that he left behind.
Although some have promoted the book as a collection of comedic essays, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is very much a memoir — and a subtly haunting one at that. Nestled amidst the fifteen chapters are a few pieces that are pure humor, such as the one in which the author lists some questionable wine descriptors (“The Unattainable Riesling: Angel sweat strained through diamond mesh into a platinum tureen hammered smooth by three former presidents and the current pope”). But the majority of pages — and by far the most compelling ones — are a recollection of a past that is, both for better and worse, gone and irrevocable.
There are still ample laughs to be found in all the pieces but — to its credit — few obvious punch lines. Thoughtful, poignant prose evoke an aura of loss that permeates the entire collection. Even those less engaged by Oswalt’s prodigal talent as a writer will no doubt appreciate discovering the landscape that fostered his comedic point of view.
We begin in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., tantalizingly close to the action of the big city, yet still a world away for the car-less, geeky, teenage Oswalt. While his peers are grasping for their share of youth culture glory at Fugazi shows, Oswalt is “stuck in the syrup of the suburbs,” holed up in the local movie theater where he works, listening to REM and reading The Man in the High Castle. One night he reconsiders his fantasy of escape. “I kept drifting out of the book, out of the booth, and coasting on the green crest of the song, to the momentary idea that any point on Earth was mine for the visiting, that I’d lucked out living in the reality I was in. And I also got the feeling I was souring and damaging that luck by enjoying the contentment of pulling the shades on the sun, and shutting out my fellow employees and the world.”
He yearns to get out. But in the dark of the ticket booth Oswalt senses that escape means insulating oneself from the world while remaining stagnant. To truly transcend his situation he must engage the world and move forward toward something. Soon he begins “thinking of life — a real life — being about movement and travel and awareness.” For Oswalt, awareness comes from seeing the world. Eventually comedy will provide him a way to do so, but at that moment there is no clear path out of Sterling, Virginia, so he remains.
Later pages reveal some of the casualties of the complacency and arrested development Oswalt comes to revile. His co-worker Roddy and his uncle Pete are, in Oswalt’s eyes, tragically disabled by a “self-contradicting confusion and an adherence to the routines and safety of the suburbs.” Roddy, close to forty years old, lives out of a supply closet. He dispenses booze to young metal-heads in the parking lot and hides an arsenal of throwing stars under his mattress. Uncle Pete, who wrestles with an unknown mental disorder, spends life on his front porch, gazing out at nothing. Initially Oswalt admires Pete’s serenity, but as he grows into a young man his opinion darkens. “You’re offered the world every morning when you open your eyes,” Oswalt observes. “I was beginning to see Pete as a representative of all the people who shut that out, through cynicism, religion, fear, greed, or ritual.” Through his rejection of these figures we glimpse the underpinnings of Oswalt’s philosophy on his career choice. Comedians confront head on and shine a light on the darker aspects of life, disinfecting them in the process.
One of the two pieces that focus on Oswalt’s time as a young comic offers up a trio of sorry stand-up archetypes that he regularly opened for in the early ‘90s. There is the lame, mainstream hack; the gimmicky musician who sings parodies of contemporary hits; and lastly, the raging contrarian, those “sputtering, angry shamans of nonconformity.” Oswalt provides us — to our delight now and his dismay then — snippets of their acts throughout the years (Blazer Hacksworth: Oh hey, here’s a bunch of stuff about Amy Fisher and Mary Jo Buttafuoco. ‘I hope this affair doesn’t blow up in my face…’).
The chapter closes with Oswalt returning to D.C. after he’s ascended to headliner status. He reencounters flesh-and-blood representatives of each archetype. None remain in stand-up. But rather than offer up a predictable scene of righteous triumph in which our hero flaunts the virtues of perseverance and integrity, Oswalt changes tack. He delivers instead moving moments of quiet understanding between comics very distinct from each other in both style and achievement.
“Avoiding the trash,” explains Oswalt, “makes you miss truly astonishing moments of truth, genius, and invention.” He seems both regretful and relieved that his days of striving at the bottom are behind him. “I never got to pick my headliner. We had nothing in common, and I truly miss them.” One senses here that Oswalt is speaking about more than just the comedy he waded through on the journey upward. It would have been more enriching, personally and professionally, he realizes, if he had engaged the grotesque wonder of his suburban upbringing. Now, through his writing, he floats back over the place he rejected as a young man, sifting through the rubble and garbage, trying to find buried moments of splendor to share with us.
Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.