In 2005, I was back in school going for my second bachelor's degree, a writing degree with a creative writing emphasis. A professor of mine, Ander Monson, challenged us to widen our understanding of publication. I took this very seriously, writing a poem on a McDonalds bathroom wall, sneaking a non-fiction essay into Barnes and Nobles and Schuler Books. For this review, however, I did something sort of mundane: I published it on Amazon.com. If you don't believe I was published on such a cherished site, you can see for yourself here.
Portland's Finest (Well, Not Exactly)
For George Bush (senior) and Ronald Regan, greeted consistently with vomiting protestors, it was "Little Beirut."
For Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland Oregon (Crown Publishers, 2003) this place is called home.
For Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love, Portland is the likely destination of everyone who, looking for a new life, migrates west across America to the Pacific ocean. Why do they end up in Portland, Oregon? Because it's the cheapest place to live.
"We accumulate more and more strange people," she says. "All we are are the fugitives and refugees."
Palahniuk's aptly titled collection of short non-fiction speaks of oddballs and the things that make them tick. He speaks of what makes Portland, more than any other place, home.
Palahniuk is best known for his novels. Since his first bestseller, Fight Club, was made into a movie, Palahniuk has been the subject of a cult following. As a matter of fact, his web site is called the Cult (www.chuckpalahniuk.net). Since Fight Club, he has released a series of grotesque minimalist novels, including Choke, Lullaby, and Diary that delve into the strange: sex addicts, murder hymns, living statues, the works. Personally, I am a fan of Palahniuk's works. For me, he picks up where Joseph Conrad left off in Heart of Darkness, the exploration of the odd and why it is so appealing.
Fugitives and Refugees, though boasting with its name to tell only the stories of the grotesque, is actually something of a journey away from Palahniuk's normal style. While there are plenty of fun stories about strange people, the overwhelming feeling is that this place is home. "[W]hen you walk down the street, every corner has a story," Katherine Dunn says of Portland. "Here, the rolling history of your life is visible to you everywhere you look." This is the sentimental side of Palahniuk as he journeys through the past. It is an avant-garde travelogue mixed with the stories that Palahniuk has acquired on many street corners.
The book starts off slowly. From the interesting interview with author Katherine Dunn, fellow inhabitant of Portland, Palahniuk launches into descriptions of Portland terminology. This list of clever nick-names for places is entirely too long, and though I assume that these nicknames have acquired meaning through the years, they are entirely too contrived. Simple rhyming phrases. Nothing more, nothing less.
There are some interesting anecdotes that are definitely worth wading through the first part of the book for, for example, Palahniuk devouring a woman's scarf while on LSD at a Pink Floyd laser light show. It is not until the chapter entitled "Haunts: Where to Rub Elbows with the Dead" that this book picks up the pace and feels like a normal Palahniuk book. I read this chapter alone in my apartment, in the middle of the night. It is my opinion that Hollywood can produce nothing scarier than a true story. Thus, when Palahniuk writes non-fiction about the supposed haunting of much of Portland, it gets the adrenaline pumping. It keeps you awake, and willing yourself to read more - perhaps for the thrill, perhaps simply to read about something less frightening before you go to bed (like a later chapter on the sex industry entitled "Getting Off: How to Knock Off a Piece in Portland").
According to Palahniuk, the vast majority of Portland is haunted. He even interviews Bob and Renee Chamberlain, founders of Northwest Paranormal Investigations. "Renee and Bob say that something very basic about the Portland area, something organic, possibly the soil, allows spirits to manifest there more easily." This is when it hits you that this is not a normal travelogue. Palahniuk is telling stories about things that would keep most people away from Portland, but yet, this is the home of "the most cracked of the crackpots[, t]he misfits among misfits." This is a book that will help one set up an itinerary if, like Marlowe in Conrad's epic, one seeks that strange and irrational feeling in other people. More specifically, if one seeks that strange and irrational feeling in Portland, Oregon.
But then again, Palahniuk warns: "This book is not Portland, Oregon. At best, it's a series of moments with interesting people." More than that, this is a series of moments with interesting people, many of whom have effected Palahniuk in strange and profound ways. These are the people that fuel Palahniuk's fiction. He writes: "That's my job now, to assemble and reassemble the stories I hear until I can call them mine." Would I be jumping to conclusions to say that when I hear about Palahniuk's drug-addicted friends working for restaurants, I think about the members of Project Mayhem in Fight Club who add their own extra flavor to the New England clam chowder? Or that when I hear the story of Bob and Renee Chamberlain of the Northwest Paranormal Investigations, I think of the characters in Lullaby who have become completely desensitized to the haunting of their town? Palahniuk even mentions that the mausoleum at The Portland Memorial inspired his second novel Survivor, and even mentions that he wrote much of the novel while sitting in the mausoleum, "but the air is freezing and your fingers get stiff."
Fugitives and Refugees is the side of Palahniuk that any of his fans, of his Cult, must see. For newcomers and non-Palahniuk fans, this book is worth reading because it's short and satisfies the thirst for the gross and frightening, which at the same time is transposed into the entertaining and the delightful. For the writer, this is a sample of how one modern writer got started, from the moment he threw his tonsils from an apartment building wishing that he could be a writer to the moment his highly acclaimed first novel was made into a Brad Pitt movie.
And if you're planning to go to Portland any time soon, this book gives you the ingredients for one hell of an exciting trip through the city.