Pacific Northwest Magazine
On Portland's Edge
COURTESY OF CHUCK PALAHNIUK
"YOU HAVE NO idea what it is like to constantly disappoint people. You see it the moment you meet them. You see in their eyes that they expected something so entirely different, and here they are meeting . . . you."
Chuck Palahniuk chuckles as he says this, steering his pickup down Highway 14 just on the Washington side of the Columbia River. You've heard the old saw: You can't judge a book by its cover. He's saying you can't judge an author by his books.
Come to think of it, he's wearing a blue T-shirt that says Disappointed in Disney-style script.
Palahniuk (paula-nick) loves the irony of this. He is more than the best-selling author of "Fight Club." These days, he is as close to a cult author as you can get. Some of his readers read no one else. He is next to impossible to find in used-bookstores, and his exhaustive fan-run Web site, called "The Cult" as a wink to his rabid following, claims to attract 9 million hits in a slow month.
The fame and fans came fast when, in 1999, "Fight Club" became a movie, and actors Brad Pitt and Edward Norton mouthed lines from the book verbatim. The movie was wild satire, in turns violent and funny, poignant and disturbing, and faithful to Palahniuk's vision of how blind consumerism can give you a case of identity crisis so bad you'll prefer a good bruising. Palahniuk quit his job at Freightliner, a Portland manufacturer where he worked the assembly line and wrote technical data, seven years ago — only after he knew for sure the movie was for real.
He'd written "Fight Club" partly because he got beat up one weekend and none of his co-workers at the plant asked about his rotten-banana face the next Monday. "I realized then, you could do just about anything on your own time, and the nice people you work with wouldn't care."
But mostly he'd written the book to be a sort of middle finger aimed at publishers who'd turned down his first novel, saying it was too weird, too edgy. Oh yeah? he'd thought. You don't like weird and edgy? You'll REALLY hate this next one.
Instead, "Fight Club" struck a chord, and Palahniuk became the fresh literary voice, praised by literati like Robert Stone and especially by young adults, some of whom had given up on books.
Palahniuk dismisses this "fresh voice" stuff. He claims to have no voice at all, only a great set of ears and the courage to tell what most people make a point of ignoring.
"I just listen to the wonderful stories around me, around all of us," he says, "and identify a metaphor from them.''
Friends, his upbringing in the dusty Eastern Washington burg of Burbank, and the ever-idiosyncratic nature of the Northwest — especially the other Portland he's lived in for more than two decades — populate and inform his books. His two nonfiction works are celebrations of the overlooked and obsessed, the lurid and the lasting, all of which are in our own backyard.
He called his recent travel book about his version of Portland "Fugitives and Refugees," and meant it.
In his novels, he likes to begin near the end of the protagonist's plight. Like the woman who reads a diary to her comatose husband. Like the insomniac yuppie noting that he can only speak in vowels because a gun barrel is jammed in his mouth.
You must read on to see how things got this way.
PALAHNIUK IS SITTING at a corner booth in a downtown Vancouver Hawaiian-style restaurant. But his thick, dark brown hair is not.
In fact, the only hair in sight is a tuft bordering his chin. It's wider than it is long. He's growing it so he won't look like a walking hard-boiled egg. His head is an egg because he is between first draft and rewrite of his next book. This hair purging reminds him that nothing on the page is so good it can't be sacrificed, whacked into oblivion.
He'll grow his hair back and look handsome enough when he's on the book tour.
Parts of his tales can make you wince, which is fine by him. He is the kind of slick, surprising writer you recommend, but with a warning like, "Don't expect 'Steel Magnolias' " or "If you can just handle. . .'' Some critics call him a shock writer, but shock is part of the ride.
While his novels and nonfiction are unflinching, often visceral, the Palahniuk you meet is cordial, a bit bookish. This seems to disappoint journalists and others who come calling. British journalists seem most disappointed. One wanted him to go shoplift socks; Palahniuk ended the interview early.
His eyes, peering from behind glasses, are that translucent green that looks blue depending on what he wears. He says he hasn't been in a scrap for years, and his face is not only unmarked, but downright scrubbed for someone famous for rule-breaking novels. He's a shade below 6 feet and trim, with ballooned biceps. He has been in a relationship with the same man for almost 15 years.
His voice soothes, especially when he recites the first line of an Amy Hempel short story: "The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me." The words spread joy across his face — that exact look people always get when they inhale the perfume of a rose.
No wonder he disappoints.
He has a paperback copy of Stephen King's "Carrie" next to him because he is brushing up on how to handle multiple points of view. He's working on his first science-fiction book, which will be masquerading as a nonfiction biography. People will remember the central character, show how recollections get skewed, and lies get shared.
Speaking of lies, he lays his fork down on his order of macadamia-nut halibut and attacks the Tooth Fairy. He launches into the history of the tooth-for-cash custom, from the Tooth Mouse to tossing the tooth in a fire to how some well-meaning liars go so far as to leave behind onion skin and claim the fairy must have lost a wing.
He is fixated on the concept of reward for believing.
"What is the real purpose behind the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus?" he asks. "They seem like greater steps toward faith and imagination, each with a payoff. Like cognitive training exercises.
"From an early age, you're asked to believe in this guy who brings you toys, real tangible things. Then you're asked to believe in this impossible animal that brings candy, which is a little less tangible. Then, as you start getting your adult teeth you are sold the most impossible of all, a fairy who brings you your country's currency for your tooth."
This all fits somehow into the guiding metaphor for his book in progress: reality by consensus and what it gains you. He has been harvesting recollections and customs from his friends and even strangers with time on their hands.
Palahniuk loves listening to stories and is a gifted teller. He keeps them tight but rich. He doesn't telegraph the punch line. Often, these tales aren't for everyone: a garbage bag full of dead-people photos, the horrors and mischief of hospital Candy Stripers, nose jobs done by ancient Greeks. Why? Because, he says, these are real stories that don't get told.
He is proud to have written a short story so gross that it has made people pass out when he tells it aloud. Yet he is polite enough to wait until you're done eating to begin telling it, and good enough at judging audience reaction to know when not to finish.
A CONVERTIBLE SPEEDS past on the Interstate 205 bridge that spans the Columbia River. Both the top and the driver's shirt are off. The man is so hairy he could be described as furry. His body hair flapping about him at 70 miles an hour, he is gone in a flash.
But seeing him, Palahniuk stops, mid-sentence — "Whoa, is that a sweater he's wearing?"
However fleeting, it is the type of moment that inspires. The hook in a Palahniuk novel — be it sexual addiction, death cults, media excess — is mainly fashioned from local zingers he's heard or people he has known or absurdity he has seen or joined.
So Palahniuk's Portland is not the pretty, popular Pearl District Portland. It is not the cute little-big-town Portland with its string of postcard bridges spanning the Willamette River. And it isn't the forward-thinking Portland with mass transit that actually seems to work. His Portland is a bit grimy and frayed, where ghosts haunt bathrooms, the anonymous do their things, parks bark "no parking" signs right at the entrance. Places nobody else seems to go, or admits to going, and people you look past.
Portland has hosted characters for a long time, so it makes sense it is also home to unusual artists. John Callahan is known for his oddball cartooning, and now writes dark songs. He is a neighbor of Katherine Dunn, whose book "Geek Love" was an oddball best-selling classic. Dunn got talking to Palahniuk and gave him the title for "Fugitives and Refugees."
He asked her why she is still in Portland and she replied, "When you walk down the street, every corner has a story. Here, the rolling history of your life is visible everywhere you look."
Palahniuk slides his truck into a mausoleum parking lot and says one of the most amusing things about his Portland travel book was that the former mayor said with conviction she had no intention of reading it.
It's nippy inside the three-acre Portland Memorial Mausoleum, a labyrinth of crypts in the southeast part of town. He wrote some of his second novel, "Survivor," inside the complex because it served as the meeting place of his two key characters. Soon, Palahniuk is trying to open a door that leads to a room where he says indigent deceased are stored in boxes. He promises a creepy and claustrophobic sensation. But it's locked.
The mausoleum is a maze, but he knows his way around. He learned about it during a scavenger hunt sponsored by the Portland Cacophony Society, a loose-knit group that celebrates anarchy, mischief and at least a good time. He was one of the earliest members. He confides dark tales about the place. He believes in ghosts but knows how that sounds.
He drives to the Kidd Toy Museum, a collection amassed by former Air Force Capt. Frank Kidd. The collection is massive — populated by cars, trucks, dolls, action figures and banks, old, rare and offensive to a number of racial and ethnic groups.
The best part of the collection is that much of it is woven into a working auto-parts business. The second-best part is that the only sign heralding the collection from Grand Avenue is a handwritten note taped to a gray metal door. Ah, obsession, anonymity, oddity. Palahniuk heaven.
Just down the street is the Rose and Raindrop Restaurant, which has this sort of Western saloon vibe. He plops into a booth and orders lunch. He doesn't bring visitors here for the food as much as the legend. The restrooms are supposed to be haunted. So is the upstairs reception room. So they say.
Today, the only restroom haunting is from an old Doobie Brothers song seeping through a stereo speaker high on a wall.
Then there is the downtown haunted-tunnel tour, the literal definition of underground Portland. It starts in a basement of a bar, and the time Palahniuk took it, the guide wreaked of whiskey. Tourists hung onto ropes, groped their way into the dark and prepared for cheap scares. "The first rule of the haunted-tunnel tour," the guide began, "is you don't talk about the haunted tunnel tour," which was a direct rip-off of — or homage to — the famous first rule of "Fight Club."
Palahniuk: Did you do that just because of me?
Palahniuk: I wrote that book.
Guide: There was a book, too?
BIG BLACK FILE cabinets he bought from Freightliner line a wall behind the bare writing desk inside Palahniuk's Vancouver condo. They are filled with weird ideas and stories that might come in handy someday. Mark Twain books are piled on his coffee table. He's trying to refresh that good ol' country-boy dialog for his new book.
His stuffed bookcase is organized by genre: poetry, nonfiction, essays, medical, religion. Woody Allen's zany "Bananas," Amy Vanderbilt's "Complete Guide to Etiquette," and "Practical Homicide Investigation." Palahniuk's books are filled with detailed, clinical, how-to information about this and that, which helps pull his outrageous narratives back into Earth's orbit.
He opens drawers at the bottom of the bookcase. One is packed with stuffed animals, the 99-cent kind. Dolphins, cats, bears. The next holds bins of semi-precious stones picked up during book tours, from Missoula to Milan. He knits the stones into necklaces or bracelets and splices his name on one side and a fan's on the other.
He sticks his arts-and-crafts project, one of the animals and other knickknacks — some magic cards or fake bloody organs — into a box. He throws in a letter and maybe a book of his, sometimes in Lithuanian or some other foreign language, with an autograph like, "to my best cellmate ever!"
He sends it to a fan.
He did that 6,500 times or so this past year. It's part of the reciprocal love affair he has with fans.
Despite his reputation as this silver-tongued anarchist, Palahniuk is so precise with his prose — even concerning himself with what letters his sentences begin and end with — that you can pick his work out of any literary lineup. He passes along writing lessons and answers questions on the fan Web site, www.chuckpalahniuk.net. The lessons used to be free, but now there's a charge because Dennis Widmyer, who started and maintains the site, was getting swamped by the fans and activity.
Fans also flock to Palahniuk's legendary readings. He'll toss fake severed limbs or worm-infested organs into the crowd or pass out plastic sunflowers or tiaras. "Seeing thuggish skinhead-looking guys walking around in tiaras," he says, "is priceless." One time, creeps, perhaps inspired by Project Mayhem in "Fight Club," littered the room with small dying animals. Palahniuk demanded security before going back out on tour.
Sometimes, all the attention can be too much. Palahniuk moved to Washington's Long Beach Peninsula for a while to help his mom and other family members resettle, but also because readers were showing up at his Portland doorstep.
PEOPLE STILL GO WEST to reinvent themselves, and as far as cities go, Portland is still a cheap place in which to try. Many of Palahniuk's books focus on looking for something and finding something better: identity and community. He was looking for both when he moved there.
"So many people come here to escape to see how their lives turn out," he says, back on the highway. "The vibe you get is they are trying to fix the situation they are in. That's a big part of my books."
Growing up in the brush country of Eastern Washington, Palahniuk and his three siblings moved from house to trailer to house to ultimately his grandparents' farm, when his parents parted ways. He was a near 4-point student and a hard worker. Getting a job as projectionist at a Tri-Cities theater complex, he says, was a breakthrough because it widened his circle of friends.
As soon as he graduated, he moved to Portland for three basic reasons: It rained a lot; it wasn't Burbank; and all his old buddies were moving to Seattle. He wanted a fresh start.
After a journalism degree at the University of Oregon and a short, unhappy stint as a reporter for an undistinguished weekly, he went to work for Freightliner, where he had every intention of staying until retirement. He toyed with writing fiction to amuse himself — and because he couldn't get television reception at his crummy 300-square-foot house.
He also read too many boring books.
Then he stumbled onto a motivational seminar that actually worked. He found Tom Spanbauer, a Portland writer and teacher of the minimalist style that meshed with his own voice and view. He became a big-time author. Sounds like a tale ripped from one of his novels.
His best-selling nonfiction book, "Stranger Than Fiction," like the Portland book, is full of strange happenings, obsessions, people and eclectic moments, only on a wider scale. He covers the Combine Demolition Derby in the Eastern Washington hamlet of Lind and writes a touching essay on how he accompanied an AIDS patient to his last sunset. He tells the world about his father's horrific murder in Idaho and a murder-suicide involving his paternal grandparents on the family farm.
He begins: "If you haven't noticed, all my books are about a lonely person trying to connect with other people. In a way, this is opposite of the American Dream: to get so rich you can rise above the rabble, all those people on the freeway, or worse, the bus."
Palahniuk sees Portland's fringe unraveling, glossy charisma nudging out character and characters. A sterile mall of a town is sensory deprivation to a curiosity junkie. He might as well be anywhere. He grunts at the mention of the Pearl District and sounds more like an old-timer than a hip author when he complains about Macy's taking over Meier & Frank.
"Without Meier & Frank, Portland isn't Portland. It's just this . . . like any other city. Indistinguishable."
He even toyed with going back to Eastern Washington. Instead, he nudged east on the highway and back to the Washington side. He is moving onto seven acres on a Washougal bluff, secluded among the trees, and sandwiched between the Columbia and Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
His new perch is above the rabble, but he insists he is not leaving anything. He's close enough to see his friends and make his Tuesday-night writing group in Portland. And, he notes, he is closer to the airport. He moved there for space and for solace. Let's face it, a writer can only mix it up so long before he has to sit, alone, in front of a blank, hungry screen.
He needs his friends. He needs his writing group. But he doesn't need Portland to collect his stories and inspiration. He gleaned nuggets for "Invisible Monsters," his third novel, from guys confessing on sex lines and in chat rooms. He can do that anywhere.
Success — and all but one of his novels have been optioned for film — broadens horizons. It puts you on planes for book tours. And if the ride is long enough, and if you're lucky and attentive enough, the guy next to you just might tell his story, one that nobody would believe, but would make a heck of a read.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Harley Soltes is a Seattle freelance photographer.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company