Once again, Chuck Palahniuk is seducing audiences with a tale of blood and guts. And the author of ”Fight Club,” the bruiser anthem behind the cult movie, is beat up something good this time, his assailant a crystallized mass of evil burrowed deep within his whimpering bladder. ”I go to take a leak and, oh my God, I’m bleeding to death,” he tells a Portland bookstore crowd of 200-plus. ”It’s like ‘Carrie.’ And I’ve got another kidney stone. Right now I’m on half a Vicodin. So go ahead: Hit me.”
And the crowd goes wild. Palahniuk (pronounced Paula-nick) is making a three-night promotional swing through local bookstores to promote his hometown travel guide ”Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon,” and details of his bladder infection kill. His fans — many of whom are young men, unemployed, or making do on minimum wage, tattooed and pierced, with black Sharpie pen on their nails and cut-off Dickies and red laces through their Chuck Taylors — lap up his stories, so thrilled are they to be in their hero’s presence. See, they didn’t really read before. Maybe some Marvel comics or fantasy novels, maybe some Bret Easton Ellis. But they saw this movie ”Fight Club” and something took hold and suddenly they’re buying hardcovers and standing in line for three hours to meet a writer.
Dallas Webb, a 22-year-old struggling with borderline personality disorder, made the two-hour drive from Salem, Wash., to get his books signed by the master. Their exchange is clean and cordial and now Webb needs to sit down. ”This is a HUGE deal for me,” he says shakily, embarrassed by his cotton mouth and trembling pierced lower lip. ”He’s been the big influence on my life for the last couple years. I don’t know, he’s helped me a lot…the whole philosophy behind the movie. It wasn’t just about violence, it was about how you can feel so alone in life and so abandoned and rejected by everything that you have to resort to violence to feel real.” Like other hardcore fans, Webb flirted in the past with back-alley fight clubs. (One British kid wrote Palahniuk to say he’d officially changed his name to Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden.) And like others, Webb has self-mutilated in homage to ”Fight Club”’s infamous lye scene. To pay the evening its proper due, he’d poured superglue on his right hand and a buddy sprayed it with accelerant. His resulting chemical burn, a cracked, pink mess, is a source of pride. ”This makes me feel like I’m connecting with what I love. I have passion.”
Such earnest fanaticism propels Palahniuk’s subversive novels, like ”Choke and Lullaby” and the latest, a conspiracy horror story called ”Diary,” onto the best-seller list. And at readings Palahniuk knows how to milk the love. He bought 45 masks of the WWE character the Undertaker at the dollar store and throws them out to the crowd, promising that ”these masks are excellent for sex!” He signs everyone’s books (”To Drew — the best cellmate ever!”) and stamps the pages with ”Property of Oswald Men’s Federal Penitentiary” or ”Property of Dr. B. Alexander Sex Reassignment Clinic.” He gives the crowd what they want — and they want outrageous stories about acting up and getting loaded. They want to know when the next Palahniuk novel will bust its way onto the big screen. They want his personal e-mail address. They want to hear about his famous friends, like Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson. Palahniuk loves to talk about Manson — Manson this, Manson that — and his painted-on shtick. ”It’s almost like watching somebody do drag,” he says. ”Because when he’s up there doing his big nihilistic thing, it feels funny to watch him. Because I see it as this very put-on costume and persona.”
Chuck Palahniuk, 41, hasn’t been in a fight since 1995. ”When I first used to tour,” he says, ”guys would come up and say, ‘Where’s the fight club in my area?’ and I would say, ‘There isn’t one.’ And they’d say, ‘No, no, you can tell me, you can tell me.’ Or they would come and they would say, ‘Is there one of these for women?’ And I’d be like, ‘There isn’t one of these for men. I made it up.’ And it breaks their hearts, it breaks people’s hearts.”
Which is not to say that Palahniuk — who was raised in Burbank, Wash., a farming town without a gas station, in a trailer marooned across the street from the Burbank Tavern — doesn’t have a family tree draped in violence. His paternal grandfather shot his grandmother to death before turning the gun on himself, Palahniuk’s then-3-year-old father hiding under the bed. Palahniuk’s parents, after years of messy, loud fights, split when he was 14. His dad, a railroad man and a great lover of drink and women, was shot and killed a week shy of his 60th birthday by the ex-husband of a gal he’d met through the personal ads.
”I started taking Zoloft after my dad was murdered,” says Palahniuk. ”That was the year the Fight Club movie came out, same summer, and so it was a way to keep functioning and meet a lot of obligations. It was the best of times and worst of times. [Zoloft] sort of kept me in the immediate moment. It didn’t allow my mind to wander into a lot of tangential negative thoughts about the trial and the murder and goddammit, the story of my father growing up and oh, if the sonofabitch hadn’t placed that ad, you know, if he’d known what he was walking into, it just kept me from spinning off into all those different directions.” His father’s murderer rots on death row, ”but he’ll probably be appealing the verdict for the rest of our lives.”
Knowing his dark history, and the irreverent, angry tone of his books, you might expect a man with menace in his eyes, someone ready to go off the rails. But in person, Palahniuk carries himself like a pussycat gentleman, eager and gracious. He took hard to swearing during his 13 years as a diesel mechanic at Freightliner Trucks (where he worked full-time until 1998), but he’s sick of curse words and rarely lets one fly. Instead he uses milquetoast expressions like ”Yes, Virginia” as in ”Yes, Virginia, I have a kidney stone!” When he gathers with friends, it’s for food and drink and board games like UNO or Trivial Pursuit. (”Hey, I hear Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have game nights too!”) He wears loafers and khakis and reading glasses. ”People are surprised that he’s not some tattoo-ridden guy who’s just like ‘F—the government! F— this!”’ says Dennis Widmyer, the affable 26-year-old creator and webmaster of the site http://www.chuckpalahniuk.net, otherwise known as The Cult. ”My first view of him, he looked like Gordon Gekko, he had that slicked-back hair, very tall, good-looking, well built, and I was like, ‘Huh? I don’t get this.”’