Book review: 'Zombie Spaceship Wasteland' by Patton Oswalt

Full disclosure: Comedian Patton Oswalt, author of a new book of personal essays and other flights of whimsy called "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland," once invited me to his birthday party at the Lot, the former Warner Bros. studio in West Hollywood.

Oswalt was showing "The Warriors," director Walter Hill's disco-era-scented 1979 cult classic about New York City gang warfare. That he would screen "The Warriors" as though it were "Citizen Kane" tells you much about the cineaste's passion with which Oswalt approaches pulp, both offstage and in his stand-up act.

And so we arrive at the first chapter in his book, Oswalt taking us back to the summer of 1987, when as a teenager he worked at the Towncenter3 movie theater, a triplex in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Sterling, Va., near where Oswalt grew up.

"That was my Lapin Agile," he declares of the Towncenter3. "My Factory. My Elaine's. My CBGBs. My Studio 54."

Is this master of irony being ironic? Yes, but also no. Oswalt is a star of the alternative comedy world and a dean to nerd comics, someone who entered stand-up as an outsider and took his lumps for years. It's worth noting that around the time Oswalt was starting out, Andrew Dice Clay played Madison Square Garden. Alpha males ruled, not guys who read sci-fi fanzines as they waited to go on. Oswalt would find his scene, first in San Francisco and then Los Angeles, principally at Largo, where his subcultural reference points — Philip K. Dick, video games, Hollywood movie producer Robert Evans — found like-minded audiences.

But in "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland," Oswalt tries for something more subdued than his Largo riffs, more elliptical; that he falls short also furthers his bona fides as a true artist. Comedy aspirants are forewarned: You don't read "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland" to learn how Oswalt came by his on-stage courage, and certainly not to find out how he became a regular on "The King of Queens" or the voice of Remy the rat in "Ratatouille."

At its best, the book echoes Steve Martin's memoir "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life," in which the now-world-famous comedian looks back at his early jobs working at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

For Oswalt, it was a movie theater showing "Jaws: The Revenge" and "Adventures in Babysitting." Here is Oswalt describing Roddy, the assistant manager at the Towncenter3 who evidently lived at the theater, in a supply closet: "… He slept amid the powdered-butter fumes and empty drink-syrup tanks. He had grub-white skin and Goth circles under his eyes that, unlike those of Goths, came from really, truly existing half in the world of the dead. He smelled like carpeting, Scotch tape, and steak sauce."

Anyone familiar with the way Oswalt uses descriptives like darts in his stand-up will appreciate the language here. But subsequent personal essays in the book — about the allure of Dungeons & Dragons, or why he and his high school friends saw escape from adolescence in terms of "Zombies," "Spaceships" or "Wastelands" — lack depth because Oswalt doesn't juxtapose these fantasy realms with enough of the reality that was going on around him.

Oswalt deems himself a "Wasteland." "A lot of comedians are Wastelands — 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?" he writes.

The suburbs during the onset of the Reagan '80s — his actual wasteland — is the backdrop for much of Oswalt's youth. But, except for a touching chapter about an uncle, there is little here about Oswalt's family, who they are or how they lived.

There are humor pieces in the book a la the New Yorker column "Shouts & Murmurs," there is a vampire comic, there is a nightmare story of doing the road. Mostly, there is keen, almost scholarly analysis of the cultural underworld of his youth, the music, the games, the movies.

Still, I found myself wanting more bio and less bizarro. Disclosure doesn't necessarily equal craft. Comic Sarah Silverman writes in a much more frank, personal and ultimately less interesting way in her recent book "The Bedwetter."

Then again, don't we always want to know how comics are able to do it in the first place? I'm talking about what happened to them as children. Oswalt, an inveterate curmudgeon about the excesses of show business, is trying to convey his own path into comedy without navel-gazing or falling back on tropes.

His "full disclosures" involve things he was doing on the Internet while writing his book ("Technorati'd myself," is one). The career, with its considerable accomplishments, is not explored. That's refreshing, even if Oswalt's voice on the page lacks the rollicking self-possession that he so readily conveys with a microphone in his hand.