Patton Oswalt: Writer 

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

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PATTON OSWALT is an indisputably funny person. And parts of his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, are indisputably funny. But Oswalt hasn't merely committed his stand-up act to the page, nor has he written a book of jokes. This is a good thing; books by stand-up comedians usually either end up as disconnected bits scrawled down and then sucked of all life during the editing process, or as book-length treatises on the wry little foibles of modern life (parenting can be so hard, and yet so rewarding!).

Oswalt's book is a sketchbook of sorts, with material that ranges wildly all over the map. Yes, it contains recognizable jokes: spoofs of wine-tasting notes here, fake greeting cards there. There's an eight-page graphic story illustrated by Matthew Bernier that serves as a lengthy setup to a pretty lame punchline, but shows Oswalt's skill as a comics writer (he's done it before, most recently with the Dark Horse-published Serenity: Float Out). And there's a poem—or "song," actually—whose main protagonist is Ulvaak, the Dungeons & Dragons character Oswalt created as a teenager.

But the real meat of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is in the autobiographical pieces he's written about his own life, as in "Prelude to the Song of Ulvaak," when he remembers what it was like to be a clueless kid enamored with geek culture, or in the preface, in which he recalls the thrill of the books he read in his childhood. The book's best sections are also its most melancholy—remembering a schizophrenic uncle with equal parts affection and anger, or the loser coworkers from his shitty movie-theater job, or the piece recalling his best friend's parents' divorce from a kid's perspective.

Oswalt's writing is exceptional, and that's part of the reason the scattershot Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is such a disappointment. There are isolated sentences in it that are as gracefully well written as anything else you'll read this year, but the pieces often feel abandoned, as if Oswalt found the thrust of his subject, then cut bait. You can feel him grasping for profundity, and coming just short. But I suspect Oswalt will someday write something that blows everyone away, whether it be a book or a screenplay or whatever, something that's as good and lasting as his best stand-up.

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