May 23, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

”If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.” So Chuck Palahniuk introduces the reader to Choke, showcasing the punkish style of his fourth novel from line one. The narrator, Victor Mancini, continues: ”After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here,” he warns. ”Save yourself.” The hero’s warning is the author’s awkward wink, and there, in the third paragraph, you have the story’s over worked theme: salvation.

Palahniuk is a cult writer in the truest sense. ”Fight Club,” his 1996 debut, preached the evils of consumer capitalism to a choir of boys and girls sulkily in touch with their suburban disaffection. In 1999 Palahniuk hit it big, earning critical raves for ”Survivor” (a DeLillo tinged satire about a televangelist), following with ”Invisible Monsters” (a gory road story), and seeing the director David Fincher adapt ”Fight Club” into a high profile spectacle of groovy nihilism. The cult has gone pop and, with ”Choke,” will likely gather force, so let’s advise reader discretion: not on account of the skanky sex scenes. Nor the calculated sacrilege. No, rather because of its ”message” — Chuck Palahniuk wants to save your soul.

His agent in that mission is Victor, and this fast paced coming of age story opens with one of the protagonist’s many flashbacks to his youth. ”Imagine,” Victor writes, ”some dweeby little boy wearing no seat belt and riding in a stolen school bus with his mommy after dinner. Only there’s a police car parked at their motel so the Mommy just blows on past at 60 or 70 miles an hour.” Mommy is a menacing lunatic given to sniffing chemicals, pulling antiestablishment pranks, and kidnapping her son from foster parents.

As the first page promises, Victor, his name unironic, emerges winningly from his ordeals and sets off on a quest for personal meaning. And there’s your allegory. The world of ”Choke” is like a jaded adolescent’s version of our own; Victor, an Everyman struggling to find the true path. He’s not a defined character but an angsty blank for readers to ”relate to.” Palahniuk, it seems, wants to do visionary comedy, and though the jokes are often funny, the vision is bogus. His only point here is to preach the rock bottom obvious notion that the unhappy should take control of their lives, that ”maybe it’s our job to invent something better.” Well, sure, and it’s a writer’s job to invent better than this.

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Doubleday
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