Stranger than fiction
• Chuck Palahniuk makes Portland's real-life oddballs the stars of his new book
At the Portland Memorial Mausoleum at Southeast 14th Avenue and Bybee Boulevard, Portland writer Chuck Palahniuk wanders through the honeycombed necropolis, marveling at the wide range of monument styles and the permanently low temperature.
'Unofficially,' he whispers, 'I'm told this is the best place to take acid in Portland.'
The mausoleum looks like a giant apartment building that sits above Oaks Bottom. White concrete, gray skies, black water.
'On a rainy day, this place is great. It's the mall of the dead. It's the Clackamas Town Center of the dead. If they would let me walk my dogs here, I'd be in heaven.'
Last summer, the author of the best seller 'Fight Club' and four other novels revisited some of the scenes of his youth. Palahniuk (pronounced 'PAULA-nick') had been commissioned to write one of the Crown Journeys series of literary travel guides. Not for him prissy Provincetown or pompous Rome. His subject is Portland, the city that made him the most genial transgressor in the literary world.
'Fugitives and Refugees,' available July 15, is the result, and it's just the sort of book Portland needs. Because of its controversial nature, the 41-year-old likes to think of the book as a 'bomb' that will sit on the shelves of tourist shops next to the Pendleton blankets and boysenberry jam.
Palahniuk has a worldwide following.
'Ninety-nine percent of the readers will never come (to Portland), so it's an armchair adventure,' he says. There are chapters on bizarro collections (the Kidd Toy Museum, the Self-Cleaning House), sex clubs straight and gay (Ace of Hearts, Zippers Down), haunted places (the Rose and Raindrop pub, the Heathman Hotel), shopping (the 'Bins,' the ReBuilding Center), and dozens of oddities that set Portland apart from America's cookie-cutter cities.
He speaks fondly of his first visit to the mausoleum, for a scavenger hunt in the mid-1990s held by the Cacophony Society, a bunch of urban pranksters. 'There were 75 people dressed as Addams Family members holding calla lilies, and in less than 10 minutes we were all lost Ñ no one could find anything.'
Sex, drugs and death
As a writer, Palahniuk delights in high weirdness, but his strength is linking it to everyday life. And Portland has been the perfect host since he moved here in 1981, just out of high school in Burbank in southeastern Washington. (Everyone else was going to Seattle. He wanted a fresh start.)
After getting a journalism degree, he ended up in a frustrating job as a technical writer at truck maker Freightliner.
He wrote 'Invisible Monsters' in his spare time, then 'Fight Club,' which became his first published novel in 1996. While on the book tour for 'Fight Club,' he wrote 'Survivor' (1999). And somewhere in his closet is a 700-page manuscript he rarely mentions, also from the Freightliner days.
One of the reasons that 'Fight Club' broke through was because it rendered postmodernism in stark imagery Ñ catalog furniture, liposuction-fat soap, collapsing tall buildings Ñ rather than in abstract concepts. As with his take on Portland, he's more interested in the funny stories that people tell one another and the truths they convey than in theory and generalization.
He's an Internet-age author. He uses it for research, and his fans use it to keep up with him. How else would we know that last September he told a crowd at a book signing in Tempe, Ariz., that writing is his greatest form of therapy?
Some things are personal, though. Palahniuk is married but never talks about his wife. For this, he cites writer David Sedaris, who acknowledged that he has alienated his family by turning them into comic fodder. 'It's separated them, and I'm determined that's not going to happen,' Palahniuk says.
He does, however, refer constantly to his friends. Finding them is not hard.
'I regret publishing the names of my friends on the acknowledgments page of 'Fight Club' because I never thought that 'Fight Club' would really turn into anything. Now they get calls from all over the world, strangers saying, 'How can I meet Chuck? Can you give him my manuscript?' '
Ina Gebert, one of those acknowledged, is a model for the Marla Singer character in 'Fight Club' (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the movie).
'He is as he presents himself to be,' Gebert said recently. 'He has no hidden agenda.' She met him at Freightliner, where he was always cracking jokes that no one got. 'When I arrived, the others said, 'Chuck, finally, someone who gets you,' ' she says.
'I don't see as much of him as before his fame and fortune,' she says, but they do talk almost daily.
Palahniuk is loyal to his friends. He recently invited Gebert to come on the road with him to Spokane and Idaho, where he was doing research for a magazine article (she couldn't). 'Last fall, in San Francisco, we were supposed to go to some party, so he took me to Saks and bought me an outfit worth, like, $700.'
Geoff Pleat met Palahniuk in 1995 at the gym and is partly responsible for Tyler Durden (the Brad Pitt character in the 'Fight Club' movie).
'He was good at getting his friends to do crazy stuff,' Pleat says ruefully. 'I think he was a little star-struck for a while.'
Pleat now lives in Seattle and doesn't see much of Palahniuk. Having just been laid off as a software developer, there's a touch of dark humor when Pleat says, 'He says, 'Don't sell out, quit your job and don't worry about money.' He comes off like Mr. Crazy Fight Club, but he never screwed up anything important to him, like his writing or his family.'
Dennis Widmyer of Long Island, N.Y., runs the Cult, the extensive Web site www.chuckpalahniuk.net, which he started with Amy Dalton in 1999, but now runs on his own. They were just fans providing a service, but Palahniuk appreciated them so much he dedicated 'Lullaby' to them.
Upon request, he also wrote a nine-page critique of Widmyer's movie script 'Our Lady of Sorrow.'
'He's really humble and likable,' says Widmyer, the budding filmmaker, who also is working on a Palahniuk documentary. 'He does that for countless people Ñ any piece of fan mail, he writes back, and includes artifacts. You don't just get an autograph. He told me he does it to make it interesting for him, as much as for them.'
Literary critics seem compelled to point out that while his books are creative, he has not yet earned his lift pass to the heights of novelists such as Don DeLillo or JG Ballard. Reviews of his fiction in The New York Times usually include a jab at how 'sophomoric' he can be ('Choke'), or how 'reckless' his writing can be ('Lullaby').
Although meticulous, he also works fast. Asked if he treated 'Fugitives and Refugees' as a stylistic challenge and tried to make it his best writing, he laughs and answers, 'No, I don't even treat my fiction that way! My fiction is like, 'I want to get this done before the sun starts shining.' If it becomes laborious for me, I think that's how it's going to read.'
Crackpots and lunatics
Palahniuk banged out 'Fugitives and Refugees' last fall after spending June 2002 racing around Portland, checking on old haunts such as the 24 Hour Church of Elvis (gone) and Miss Mona's Rack (more recently gone).
'Parts of the fringe have already disappeared,' he says. 'I don't think any American city is very individual because we have so little history. That's why I chose to portray Portland as a collection of oddball people. Other cities may have their crackpots, but they don't have these crackpots.'
They include Frances Gabe and her 'self-cleaning house' in Newberg and the Rev. Charles Linville and his fleet of art cars in Sellwood. Much to Palahniuk's amusement, they agreed to have their phone numbers published.
Gentrification threatens. 'I'm not seeing the same level of lunatics that I used to in Portland,' Palahniuk says. 'I really had to scrape to come up with really good lunatics.'
Although happy to talk frankly about his life, Palahniuk hates to write in the first person. 'In minimalism, you submerge the 'I,' ' he says. 'I hate sentence constructions that distance the reader. It's like the author is really saying, 'This is my experience, I have a great life, and you don't.' '
But Crown wanted more of him in the book, so as a compromise he added 11 'postcards,' short memoirs of his time here. Most concern sex, death, drugs and rock 'n' roll. 'They're the stories I dine out on,' he says, grinning.
For the guidebook, he says, 'I wanted it to be a collage, like a gift basket from Hickory Farms Ñ you know, 100 little fruitcakes and weird things, never more than a biteful but such a thrill to get all those little packages É'
While he still owns a house on Sauvie Island, Palahniuk recently moved to coastal Washington. 'My grandparents died last year, and my family started to fall apart,' he explains. 'We're just trying to put the family back together.'
He and two siblings bought houses near one another, but his extended family is more than 40 people. 'It's just something that has to be done for the time being,' he says. 'It's nice to be back with family.'
For an anarchist, he can be pretty anal-retentive. When at home, he rises at 4 a.m. to write. 'Because it's quiet, and the real 'judgey' part of the brain that says 'This is shit' is not awake yet.'
Then he works out, deals with business in the afternoon, reads in the evening and crashes about 9 p.m.
'Diary,' his next novel, is due out this September. Until then, he is working on a series of 25 short horror stories to be published in September 2004. His inspiration? 'If Edgar Allen Poe was alive now, what are the everyday horrors that he would be building stories around?'
His fiction editor at Doubleday, Gerald Howard, says, 'You're not going to believe this, but he hasn't changed a bit since 1995. He's one of the hardest-working and meticulous novelists there is, and he doesn't act out, not in this direction anyway. All the struggle takes place between his ears.'
As writers go, Howard says, 'he's sweeter than the national average.'
At the Red White & Blue thrift store on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard, Palahniuk says, 'My friends are going to kill me for putting this in the book because it's like their secret, but it has the best stuff and the best prices.'
Did he hold back on anything for fear of spoiling it? He shrugs and says no: 'Once things get discovered, they evolve Ñ like Burning Man has been a little bit destroyed by its recognition, but it's already spinning off its own smaller festivals.'
Then he remembers something. He successfully bribed a waiter at Kells pub $50 to find out how they stick the twisted dollar bills to the ceiling. He loves telling, but in the end he kept the secret out of the book.
Palahniuk's strength seems to be containing his contradictions without blowing a gasket. He's a funny mix of family man and drifter, mischief-maker and earnest self-helper, tourist and local.
'Whenever I get a tour of a civic building or a restored mansion, there are places they won't show you. I say, 'Show me the attic, 20 bucks!' I have yet to get a $20 bill turned down.'