By reading this, you place yourself into a population which knows who Wil Wheaton is. He's "that kid who played Wesley on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'" Suffering from that cruel flavor of one-shot-wonder curse that only happens to actors on successful TV shows, his graduation from TNG yielded no second-order limelight. He turned to writing, and thus to the internet, where I first stumbled across him writing about Linux distributions on his website years ago.
"The Happiest Days of our Lives" is Wheaton's third book. It isn't a big book. In fact, in the age of a profligate internet, it's positively tiny. Weighing in at 136 pages, if you judged it on word count you might think you were getting gypped. So here's the thing. If you thought Portal sucked because it's 3 hours long, don't buy this book (and you're not invited for dinner). If you're the kind of person who thinks any given song in Guitar Hero just isn't worth it, because it's only 3 minutes long, not only shouldn't you buy this book, and not only aren't you invited to dinner, but do I even know you?
But, on the other hand, if you're willing to look past something as simplistic as length, and those two comparisons made some kind of sense, then you should buy this book.
"THDOOL", as the Wheaton-mob refers to it, is a collection of short stories, which I put in the category of "creative autobiographical non-fiction," a genre I just made up to describe what most of us would recognize as something like blog posts. This isn't an indictment. Despite the cavalcade of idiots who regularly appear talking about the decline of intellectual discourse and the demise of the English language, I would argue that the internet, and blogging in particular, has brought a primacy to the written word that hasn't been seen since the middle ages, when angry monks guarded literacy as a kind of virginal chastity, only to be let go with incantations and promises. It's also resurrected the short story as a format.
Wheaton comes from this mold, this breed of "holy crap, I'm a writer?" which includes the countless millions the chance to show the public how badly their high school poetry sucks. But the Internet has also let new writers develop their craft, build an audience, and discover their voice. Wheaton's discovered his.
In his early career (not the acting one) he grabbed the writing thing hard, landing the occasional regular gig (he did a few back pages of Dragon that I still have on the back of my toilet). Eventually, he appropriated the title of "geek" and wrote two good-but-not-brilliant books, the better and most recent of which was "Just a Geek." "Just a Geek" was interesting book for "Star Trek" fans (as was an earlier effort, "Dancing Barefoot"), because Wheaton's struggle with growing-up-Wesley features prominently in the book. But it's ultimately, to use the most damning words I know when referring to a writer's work, a bit workmanlike.
To be fair, "workmanlike" is how I think of the bulk of my own writing. This is in no small part because most of it is done as a workman: on someone else's dime. I obviously strive to do my best, but ultimately my goal is to be clear, effective, and get the job done. "Just a Geek" has that feel to it. It's clear, effective, tells a story, and gets out. This is not an easy task. In fact, this staring down of the page is most often the very hardest part of the day. But while "The Happiest Days of Our Lives" shares the autobiographical creative non-fiction format of "Just a Geek," it breaks through the workmanlike barrier into being a fine piece of work in several critical ways:
- Wheaton has decided he knows how to write. There's a confidence that comes from knowing that the words will figure themselves out, and that the ideas are the hard part. It brings a conversational tone to the prose, without seeming chatty and regurgitated. Wheaton's grown as a writer enough to let go.
- He's gotten over "Star Trek." Yes, it's mentioned. Yes, it's featured in two of the short stories. But no, it's not the point. In fact, the best parts of the book are where you completely forget who's writing, because you feel like he's writing about you, in that same way a good novel puts the reader into the shoes of the protagonist.
- He's entertaining. While "Just a Geek" was interesting, it was often inelegant. "THDOOL" inverts this; it's consistently well written, and has the occasional turns of phrase here and there that makes you happy just to have read the paragraph.
The barefoot dash across the parking lot, stopping at least once on the white painted lines, before making it into the cool Thrifty drugstore, where ten-cent scoops of double chocolate malted crunch awaited. The cool linoleum and slightly dry-but-cool air-conditioned air inside is as much a part of summer as swimming and staying up late on weeknights. It was especially wonderful if a day in the swimming pool and chlorine-burned eyes put little halos around all the lights inside and made each breath of cool air burn in my chest just a little bit.
- He's not afraid. The two best stories in the collection focus on the trauma of elementary school and his love for a stray cat. Seriously. The former made me hotheaded and angry, the latter made me cry. Yes, actual tears (although I admit I am a complete sap).
It's important to make these points, because if you read anything about his book, these four points - which are about the highest praise I know how to give - get lost in the shuffle. Wheaton will forever get lumped into a bucket with "geek cred" painted on the side. Yes, he's "one of us." You need look no further than his blow-the-doors-off keynote speech he gave at PAX this year. Sure, it was funny. I mean hell, he opened with "My name is Wil Wheaton, and Jack Thompson can suck my balls." But it was also well written, well delivered, and something of an anthem for us over-30 geekdads. But we should pause for a moment and acknowledge the craft: the guy knows how to tell a compelling story.
That pause is difficult. It's hard to separate the work – the book – from the fact that he does seem so much like everyone I grew up with and to be blunt, so much like me. His stories of agonizing over Star Wars figures in K-Mart, of escaping into the safety of Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 12 – these are my stories. They are the stories of everyone I knew growing up who didn't think I was a spaz. They are our stories.
Here we sit in the crucible of the internet, invented, maintained, loved and obsessed over by geeks. Yet why is it we still look for our muse? I'm not sure I have the answer. I don't think Wheaton does either. But I do know that there is an intersection between the geek-as-consumer and the geek-as-creator that lies like a giant exposed central nerve, at least in organism in which I live. Sure, there are plenty of people writing about tech, and many of them write very well. There are scads of bloggers and pundits and comics and storytellers. And many of them (myself included, I hope) do a decent job of torturing words onto the page now and then.
Wheaton's different, not in an "oh my god he's so dreamy" way, but in the sense that blue and green are different. It would be easy to think that Wheaton has somehow parlayed a child-star gig into a kind of ambassadorship to planet Nerd. It would also be wrong. Wheaton's strength is not his provenance, it's that he is slowly mastering the craft of echoing the lives of a certain generation with simplicity, un-feigned humility and striking clarity.