Entertainment & the Arts: Friday, July 18, 2003

See Portland through ‘Fight Club’ writer’s eyes

By Mark Lindquist
Special to the Seattle Times

Crown Journeys, a series of “literary travel books,” matches interesting writers with interesting places, or at least that’s the idea. Roy Blount Jr. on New Orleans, Bill McKibben on the Adirondacks and Chuck Palahniuk, the author of “Fight Club,” on the town he knows and loves best, our neighbor Portland.

The only rule of the format, according to the publicity, is that the writers take their journeys on foot. Palahniuk likes writing about rules — “The first rule of Fight Club is … ” — but he’s not much for following rules. In “Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon,” (Crown Journeys, $16) he doesn’t exactly walk in Portland.

Instead, he mixes together a pastiche of interviews, characters, memories, self-mythology and tour-guide tips that give the reader a fascinating and tempting view of his hometown. He also includes a glossary.

Seattlelites may be amused to know that Portland shares with us a Pill Hill, a Ban Roll-On Building, and, of course, a Nordstrom colloquially known as Nordy’s.

Portland, Palahniuk concedes, is where people who couldn’t afford to live in Seattle moved. Katherine Dunn, the author of “Geek Love,” who also lives in Portland, tells Palahniuk that Portland attracts the “most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits of the misfits.”

This probably isn’t as true as Dunn and Palahniuk would like to believe, but it gives you an idea of Palahniuk’s take. In the introduction, he promises to deliver “a little history, a little legend, and a lot of friendly, sincere, fascinating people who maybe should have kept their mouths shut.”

He also delivers a lot of Chuck Palahniuk, particularly in his so-called postcards, vignettes of his life from 1981 to 2002. These chapters are among the book’s most engaging, especially if you’re curious about the experiences that formed the writer.

At 18, Palahniuk was working as a messenger by day and washing dishes by night while living with two stoner roommates. “In a moment of sacrifice, I find my childhood tonsils in a jar of formaldehyde with a label from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. In a grand gesture, I make a wish and throw the sealed jar off our apartment balcony, into the blackberry briars that cover the hillside.”

Palahniuk doesn’t say what the wish was, at least not right away.

This is not a research-intensive book, but Palahniuk is impressively well-informed about his locale, especially the sex industry. You can learn about the many clubs Portland has for swingers, voyeurs and sexual dilettantes, including the addresses.

He also includes information on more mainstream distractions such as museums, gardens, churches, courtrooms, theaters, haunted houses, the zoo and so on. Palahniuk, however, is almost always more interested in the characters that inhabit the places than the places themselves. As he admits, “I’m a lot more interested in collectors than collections.”

The main collector here is, of course, Palahniuk. What he’s collecting is memories. “The most I can ever do is to write things down. To remember them. The details. To honor them in some way.” And he does.

Richard Ford, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel about a man who sells real estate, has observed that homes are vivid things, necessary and consoling, but they lack the permanence of art.

Palahniuk has solved this by turning his home city into art.

This book made me want to run down to King Street Station and catch the Amtrak train to Portland, and it also made me want to appreciate every detail and moment of my own life here in Seattle.

The wish Palahniuk made when he threw his tonsils onto the hill was that someday he would be a writer.


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