Chuck on Fire
By Gary Singh
IT DOESN'T hit the streets until next month, but the new novel Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey is vintage Chuck Palahniuk, and the book infected me like rabies last week. In case you don't know, Chuck once penned a novel called Fight Club, which later became a David Fincher flick, and I know from personal experience that Chuck is probably sick and tired of journalists using that particular novel as a trampoline for explaining who he is. Besides Fight Club, Palahniuk has inflicted several other wicked manuscripts upon the unsuspecting public. His creative output is a far cry from conventional linear fiction with cliffhanger chapter endings every 25 pages where the evil lawyer finally gets his due and the good guys win. You will not see a pastel of Fabio in earth tones on the cover of a Chuck Palahniuk novel.
And Palahniuk is a dyed-in-the-wool prankster, which is precisely where yours truly comes in. This time around, he isn't appearing in the South Bay or Santa Cruz—he's just in SF and Berkeley the first weekend of May—but four years ago, Palahniuk went on the record with this author encouraging people to prank and disrupt his events. Since Chuck is or was a member of the Portland, Oregon chapter of the Cacophony Society and used to partake in the annual Santa Rampage where hundreds of troublemakers go barhopping all day in Santa suits, you never know what will happen at one of his readings, especially in San Francisco—and especially now that he's broken worldwide and holds "ticketed events," which is understandable, since it probably wreaks havoc on your body having to sign books for three hours a night after throwing prosthetic limbs into the audience. Here's one particular prankish deal that went down: Several San Francisco cacophonists in Santa suits showed up to prank Chuck's 2003 reading at the Park Branch Library on Page Street. Booksmith put on the event. After one of the Santas sprayed whipped cream in Chuck's face, his media escort punched out the Santa. Since one of the other Santas was actually on the cover of Palahniuk's book, Fugitives and Refugees, that particular Santa interrupted the reading and demanded compensation. Chuck then slipped him a 50-spot and we all went back to Murio's Bar on Haight Street around the corner. As the Santas exited the event, some audience members applauded, while others spat on them. Later on, other audience members physically passed out from disgust while Chuck read a less-than-happy story from his book Haunted.
I will never forget seeing a circle of inebriated Santas outside the library that evening, in a semicircle, surrounding the Booksmith employee, chanting "Naughty, naughty, naughty" in true Christmas fashion. The employee was not nice and then subsequently spat on the Santas, claiming they had ruined the event. During a later interview, I told Palahniuk about this and he disagreed, stating that since people in the audience still passed out in disgust, the reading was a success.
Palahniuk also told me a few years ago that he had an idea to completely reinvent the entire concept of the author reading—you know, maybe like touring with strippers, sword swallowers, circus freaks or whatever. The only concern was how to make it work without rehashing the whole Ken Kesey shtick.
"It feels so stilted and artificial to withhold the writer, like a magic trick, and then introduce him to the audience and bring him out onstage, creating that 'real' sort of person vs. the persons in the audience," he told me a week before that reading at the Park Branch Library. "And anything that blurs the line between those two is something that enables everyone in attendance to be part of the event."