Almost everything about author Chuck Palahniuk prompts a question. For starters, how do you pronounce his surname? ("Paul-uh-nick.") Second, what kind of kook invents such twisted tales as Fight Club, in which amateur fist-fighters sell soap made from liposuctioned human fat to fund their attacks on corporate America?
Good news, inquiring minds: The dust jacket claims Palahniuk's latest book, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (Doubleday), is "the closest thing he may ever come to writing an autobiography pocket-size guide recounts many of the author's offbeat adventures in and around his Pacific Northwest home.
But fans craving more intimate info should know this book is about Portland more than Palahniuk. "I really find it uncomfortable to write about my life," the author says. "So the chapters about myself were the least pleasant things I've ever had to write." He refers to the diary-like "postcards" stuffed between Fugitives and Refugees' off-kilter travelogues.
These personal entries are worth dissecting. We learn, for example, about the time in 1981 when Palahniuk and pals dropped acid before attending a planetarium laser show. While Pink Floyd blared and light beams squiggled, a fucked-up Chuck gnawed the fur coat of the wealthy woman who sat next to him. "I was mortified when I realized how many of the stories were drug-related stories of my squandered youth," the 42-year-old author says. "And I went through a period when I was feeling sick to my stomach about how I'd spent much of my twenties." He included only anecdotes at least five years old and ones that he feared he'd forget.
Apart from the personal bits, Fugitives and Refugees (Palahniuk's third book) is a collection of definitions, interviews, recipes and to-do lists for Portland visitors -- armchair and otherwise. Instead of highlighting Chamber of Commerce-approved attractions, the book concentrates on the freaky-filled underbelly of one of America's cleanest and comfiest cities. Palahniuk introduces us to local characters ranging from elephant keeper Jeb Barsh to Geek Love novelist Katherine Dunn, who provided the book's thematic thrust. "She said what sets Portland apart is that we attract all of the people who don't fit anywhere else in the country," Palahniuk explains. "I fell in love with that hypothesis and ran with it."
Each person profiled, in turn, opens a window into Portland's alternative universe. Sex-worker advocate Teresa Dulce kicks off a chapter about "Pornland's" booming smut sector. Who knew this well-scrubbed town has more than 50 nude dance clubs? Or that the best spot to pick up a pro' is Burnside Street, near the McDonald's.
"A lot of that stuff came as a total surprise to me," Palahniuk says. "It was like rediscovering the city that I've lived in for 20 years." He moved to town in 1980, six days after graduating from high school in nearby Pasco, Washington. He chose Portland to escape the people with whom he grew up. They moved to Seattle.
As revealing as it may be, Refugees still doesn't discuss the dark family history critics say informs the author's oft-bizarre fiction. Palahniuk's grandfather killed his wife and then himself. Decades later, Palahniuk's father and step-mother were murdered by her ex-husband. The author worked for twelve years as a truck-company tech writer and worried he would die before he could become a novelist. Publishers rejected his first book -- which Palahniuk wrote piecemeal while sitting beneath trucks at work, at Laundromats, anywhere he could grab time -- because it was too disturbing. Pissed off, Palahniuk decided to produce an even more demented novel. The resulting book, 1996's Fight Club 's movie rights sold in a snap.
He later rewrote the once-rejected first novel, which was published in 1999 as Invisible Monsters. It's a fashion-biz satire about a disfigured former model on a revenge-fueled road trip with a transvestite. In September, Palahniuk releases his sixth novel, Diary, the story of an artist-turned-maid who fights her comatose contractor husband's legal battles. Before he hit the promotional trail for Diary, Palahniuk spent the summer "rereading all the Heidegger I can find" and visiting with oddballs across America, including some men who are constructing their own castles and a Southern gent who intends to launch his own private space program. Sounds like a lot of time away from Portland, no?
"I am being lured away by other places," Palahniuk says. "You come back from a month in London and have that sneaky feeling of, why do I still live here?" Although he has no immediate plans to move, Palahniuk has bought a second home on the coast of Washington state. "In a way," he says, "[Fugitives and Refugees] completes for me 20 years in Portland."