Keith Staskiewicz
January 06, 2011 AT 05:00 AM EST

The difference between good standup comedy and good memoir writing is surprisingly small. Both are self-revelatory and intimate, often merging pathos with hilarity. This is probably why comics like George Carlin and Steve Martin have managed insightful, moving (and, of course, funny) books about their lives. Patton Oswalt, whose eloquence even while spieling on topics like KFC food bowls and cookie commercials has always pointed to a probable literary talent, continues the trend. In Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, he?s combined essays, vignettes from his youth, straight-up comedy bits, and even a short comic-book sequence. It?s not exactly a memoir, but somehow the individual shards form a believable portrait of a witty, vulnerable funnyman.

The autobiographical passages are the most successful. His accounts of his teenage days working at a suburban movie theater or his naïveté at dealing with the divorce of a friend?s parents have the detail and emotional nuance of fine short stories. These are interspersed with quickly executed joke premises — an inappropriate greeting-card catalog, the academic exegesis of a bawdy hobo song, an absurd wine list. (One of the few misfires is an ode to his childhood Dungeons & Dragons character, which doesn?t come close to matching an earlier piece that delves into what that game meant to him.) Yes, the collection is slight, coming in at under 200 pages, but in that, it?s like a great stand-up routine: Recount a few stories, riff on some topics, use only your best material, and then get off the stage. B+

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