Kabuki, Breakdancing, and Woodworking: Nick Offerman’s “Paddle Your Own Canoe” Reviewed


Paddle Your Own Canoe, One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living
by Nick Offerman
Dutton; 352 p.

If you like Parks and Recreation then you probably dig Ron Swanson. Like a lot. Because everyone on that show’s great but Swanson is clearly the hero. So I’m sure we were all psyched to discover that Ron Swanson, or the talented actor playing him, Nick Offerman, was coming out with a memoir. I mean what could be better? Having now delved into Offerman’s work, Paddle Your Own Canoe, One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, I would say that though it didn’t exactly meet my (OK, super high) expectations, it’s not bad, actually.

Paddle is a conversational telling of Offerman’s life with an emphasis on his younger years. Each chapter comes in two parts, the part about his actual life and the part that’s his take on whatever that chapter of his life brought up (his take on the Bible, his take on being a man, his take on The Business, etc.). Something to note before delving into Paddle, he touches on the following A LOT:

  • His love of meat
  • His love of woodworking
  • His love of being outside, particularly on a large body of water in a boat (or canoe, I guess) that he built himself
  • His love of his wife (the venerable Megan Mullally)
  • His luck in life, despite the time it took to really dive into the business

Offerman begins Paddle by describing his upbringing “literally in the middle of a cornfield” in the rural village of Minooka, Illinois, home, then, to 768 people. He spent his happy, modest youth cleaning pig poo, walking beans (or walking up and down the bean field cutting anything that could interfere with their growth) and being an altar boy. In high school he began experimenting with the arts, including playing the saxophone, being cast as the villain in school plays, and break dancing with his cousin Ryan. Ryan gets mentioned a lot in the book. In fact, all of Offerman’s family gets mentioned a lot in the book. Offerman seriously loves his family.

Visiting the University of Illinois during high school (with his born-again Christian girlfriend. He was born-again for a few years…), Offerman discovered it was possible not only to study theater but to practice and make a living doing it. So he signed up and ultimately learned that he was not a good actor (“I, myself, was very much a newborn baby in acting school, which is to say that I was not very good at acting, which, really, is to say I was bad at acting…”). He also learned to take part in other aspects of a production and studied a several-hundred-year-old form of Japanese theater called Kabuki, with techniques like using fabric to represent fire, water, and blood. These would highly influence him and his friends when it was time to start their own theater company post-college: The Defiant Theater.

Again, Offerman spends most of the book telling stories of his youth whether in Minooka, Champaign (during school) or in Chicago, where he honed his woodworking skills and played the starving artist for a few years. Less time is spent talking about LA, where he moved to try to make it in the business (though enough time is spent on it to know LA was tough for a while, rife with rejection and drinking). Within those chapters, Offerman gushes about the glories of Mullally (who he met when the two did a play together while she was filming Will and Grace), specifically, and romantic love in general. He highly recommends it. By the time Offerman gets to Parks and Rec the book is almost over, with very little mention of the likely hijinks that goes on when Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza and Amy Poehler and Chris Pratt are in a room (there is a bit about Chris Pratt who, apparently, in one scene during “Two Parties”, turned his cotton candy to vagina-shaped cotton candy then proceeded to eat versions of vagina cotton candy for several takes).

The book is sometimes hard to follow as Offerman goes back and forth between different periods of his life. He also repeats himself a lot. At points his voice is a little overwhelming, too; this book may be better read in doses. That said, Paddle is adorably written and spilling with the passion Offerman has for life, which is pretty inspiring. He sums it up at the very beginning of the book, in the Foreplay section:

“Basically, this book boils down to: how an average human dipshit like myself, relying solely on warped individuality and a little elbow grease, can actually rise from a simple life of relative poverty to one of prosperity, measured in American dollars and Italian band saw, sure, but more importantly, laughter, wood shavings, and kisses… The notions herein are meant to inform, inspire, and engender mirth. Enjoy, please, and thank-you.”

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