Celebrity memoirs—with exceptions for those written by people named Tina Fey and Amy Poehler—are not my genre of choice. But I couldn’t resist Rainn Wilson’s The Bassoon King*, partly because the title is hilarious, partly because I’ve noted with interest the actor’s advocacy for the persecuted adherents of his religion, the Bahá’í Faith (which he’s written a handy primer about, included at the end of the book), but mostly because The Office is one of my all-time favorite shows, and of course I want to better understand the man behind Dwight Schrute.
The Bassoon King is a charming catalogue of its author’s oddities and interests, which include 80s records, experimental theatre, and comic sidekicks. If you pick it up to be amused, you won’t be disappointed; Mr. Wilson is unfailingly self-deprecating, has a seemingly endless store of anecdotes from his teen years as what can only be described as a major nerd (takes one to know one, folks), and plenty of stories and harmless gossip about his work in movies and TV.
The two facets of the book I found most interesting were Mr. Wilson’s account of his unusual upbringing and the focus on the considerable amount of acting training he undertook, both in school (at Tufts and later NYU) and later in a touring company and various productions (from Shakespeare in the Park to his Broadway flop).
Rainn Wilson’s parents divorced when he was a small child (of his appearance as a baby, he writes, “Picture an ashen manatee with a tiny human face”), and he and his father ended up in Nicaragua, where they in short order found themselves living in a very odd jungle-y sort of town with a new stepmother, Kristin. Understandably, Mr. Wilson’s memories of his period are quite vivid (“like Technicolor acid-dream postcards, spliced and pasted together, flickering in a mental strobe light”); his descriptions of the various Nicaraguan beasties—including a pet sloth named Andrew—are laugh-out-loud funny, and, I can tell you from personal experience, most worth reading aloud to a 4-year-old.
Particularly affecting is his empathy for his parents (his birth-mother, Shay; Robert, his father, a writer and artist who sacrificed a great deal for the family; and Kristin). Shay and Robert both had horrific childhoods but thankfully did not continue the cycle of abuse; all three adults were supportive of the author’s adolescent adventures in geekdom (D&D, of course) and nerdom (chess club, model UN, bassoon, and drama, his niche) and his desire to become an actor. In fact, one of my critiques of the book is that we lose sight of these figures in Mr. Wilson’s later life; I particularly wanted to know how his father felt about the actor’s eventual re-acceptance of his childhood faith after a period of Bohemian rebellion.
If you weren’t a theater nerd in high school, it might be hard to imagine just how much training actors (as opposed to reality stars) go through, and how truly bizarre some of that training looks (grown people jumping around a stage as various animals or body parts? Check.). Mr. Wilson does an excellent job of showing just how much training, failure, serendipity, and experience lay behind his successful portrayal of Dwight. My favorite revelation: he took a clowning workshop with Gates McFadden. As in Beverly Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And it was awesome.
The Bassoon King is a memoir that covers more spiritual ground than most that I’ve read; Mr. Wilson is an unabashed believer and advocates strongly for his beliefs (but I do wish he would refrain from lumping all atheists together as materialists). He discusses his venture called Soul Pancake (source of Kid President videos, apparently, which I have heard of but not seen), a site devoted to asking people to “chew on life’s big questions,” and his advocacy, along with his wife Holiday Reinhorn, for the Mona Foundation, which supports grassroots education movements in developing countries. Together they founded Lidé, an initiative for “empowerment through the arts for women and girls” in Haiti. Mr. Wilson is clearly passionate about this endeavor and I would have liked to read more about it.
I recommend The Bassoon King to fans of The Office, budding actors, anyone interested in the Bahá’í Faith, and readers looking for something generally light and funny as a palate cleanser between denser reads.
Readers, what’s your favorite celebrity memoir?
*This is a review of a publisher’s advance reading copy of this book. This did not affect the content of my review.