Drugs, murder, kinky sex, flying mice: just another day for Chuck Palahniuk
At a recent reading in El Cajon, California, someone asked Chuck Palahniuk to name the one thing he couldn’t make funny. “Cruelty to animals,” he replied. An hour later, as he sat inscribing copies of his books for queuing fans, a blur passed before his eyes. And then another one. A small group of men had shoved through the crowd and was pelting him with white mice from a pet store down the street. “They were throwing them so hard their necks were breaking,” he says.
Of course, Palahniuk’s no stranger to senseless brutality—on or off the page. His books, including the cult classic Fight Club, are awash in spilt entrails, disfiguring diseases, and grisly accidents. An analyst might say his obsession with the macabre owes something to family history, including the murder-suicide of his paternal grandparents. In 1999, shortly before Brad Pitt first explained the rules of Fight Club to movie audiences, Palahniuk’s father was also murdered—shot mid-tryst by the enraged ex-husband of a woman he had just met through a personal ad. The writer used the killer’s subsequent trial and execution as grist for his 2002 novel, Lullaby.
His latest book, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (Doubleday, $24.95), covers similarly blood-soaked terrain. It follows a cadre of misfits who intentionally wreck their cars on busy city streets. One of them—possessed with superhuman cunnilingual skills and a fetish for venomous spiders—may or may not be Patient Zero of a world-crippling rabies epidemic. If this all sounds messy to you … well, it is.
Then there’s his sex life. In the fall of 2003, Palahniuk heard that Entertainment Weekly was planning to out him in an upcoming issue. (At the time, he claims, “Almost a dozen different journalists were asking me for money in order to protect my privacy.”) Instead of waiting to see what they’d publish, Palahniuk decided to out himself on a fan site. When the EW piece appeared weeks later, there was no mention of his heretofore secret sexuality, though he claims he doesn’t regret his decision. “It really had to happen,” says the author, who lives with his boyfriend in Portland, Oregon.
Predictably, Palahniuk’s announcement sent shock waves through the more aggressively hetero elements of his fan base, prompting some to reexamine his work through a rainbow-colored prism: Was there more to all that sweaty man-grappling than they’d thought? When asked whether there is any Freudian subtext to the scene in Rant in which two adolescent boys get sexual satisfaction from sticking their greased-up arms into holes in the desert, the author is amused. “Oh my God!” he gasps, sounding almost embarrassed. “You’ve got such a filthy mind!”
But in spite of all the lurid sex, ultra-violence, and hardcore drug use that fills his books, the closest thing to a common thread in Palahniuk’s work might actually be the idea of community. From the basement pugilists of Fight Club to the wannabe writers of Haunted (his seventh published novel), Palahniuk seems as drawn to fringe dwellers as they are to him. “I’ve always tried to portray spontaneous subcultures where people engage in a short-term activity that allows them to experiment with different identities and social structures,” he says.
A little like that gang of deranged mouse-tossers back in El Cajon? “I suppose,” he says, sighing. “Though sometimes I wish I could hire someone to play the public me.”