Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

Stranger Than Fiction: Stories

Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday (2004) 256 pages
* *

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Chuck's "new" collection of vignettes, journalism, interviews and personal reminiscence, most of which have been published already in various magazines and such, is not likely to win him any new fans or readers or any additional critical acclaim. It appears while he's between novels, most likely as part of a multi-book deal with Random House. And while he writes about things many of his fans may not be familiar with, such as his father's murder, and includes essays on such writers as Ira Levin and glimpses of the underground worlds of amateur wrestling and Navy submarine crews and such—along with rather disappointing interviews with people like Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis—over half of the book is about Fight Club. The before, the after. How he prepared to write it, and how he dealt with the fame afterwards. One of these pieces, concerning his volunteer work as a driver for a hospice, is quite engaging; but the rest of it seems quite a bit longer than it actually is, repeats itself, goes on and on and on, with rather self-important first-person accounts that are less than flattering to the book's subject: Chuck Palahniuk. And stranger than fiction? It's not—probably because on some level, over half of it is fiction.

But rather than go on in this vein, or stoop to parody as I did in my mostly unflattering review of his novel Lullaby (I gave Choke and Diary high marks, remember), I'd like to discuss any misconceptions the reader might have about me, Kevin McGowin, as the result of reading Chuck's book, this new one he wrote.

First, Chuck Palahniuk is a friendly acquaintance of mine, and he's said some very nice things to me and sent me some nice stuff from his home, which, BTW, is not exactly where his publisher says it is on the flyleaf of Stranger than Fiction. But I'll never blow his cover, so just send your fan letters to him c/o Doubleday/Random House in New York, and he'll get them, and he'll probably write you back. But anyway, I'm worried that many readers will come away from this book with the misconception that I'm a self-obsessed alcoholic. When in fact, the truth is that since the little reading tour I did for my novel The Benny Poda Years (2001), I never drink unless I'm in San Francisco with Chuck Palahniuk. And he can be forgiven for thinking I was drinking vodka on that tour—actually, it was bourbon, as my then publisher Damon Sauve, who bought the drinks, can attest to. But Chuck doesn't remember, since of course he was drunk, too.

Any publicity is good publicity.

So I'll never forget that evening at the Peacock Lounge on the corner of Haight and Fillmore, where I was reading from Poda, and which is captured forever in that Author Shot on the http://www.levee67.com site. That picture's everywhere. About an hour after it was taken, I was well into my Cups with Chuck, who was also reading downtown that night and strolled in to meet me, much like Amy Hempel comes to a Manhattan Barnes & Noble to meet him in a scene that's Stranger than Fiction.

He was wearing a gray turtleneck and the weather was drizzly and cold, and I soon found out that he'd received, read and loved the print version of the novel my publisher'd sent him, but was laboring under the mistaken notion that I was addicted to Vicodin. This was in late July. He found out I wasn't when I didn't have any for him, but that was cool, since we had plenty of booze. He talks about Vicodin at one point in Stranger, but he doesn't say he got it from me, because he didn't. Plus, he had a kidney stone, or at least that's what he says.

Plus, a lot of people want to know what kind of cigarettes Chuck smokes. They think he smokes because of the characters in the movie version of Fight Club. Well, he might or might not've smoked a Camel Light when he was drunk one time in San Francisco. But as for the common perception that Chuck is a chain-smoker, it's simply not true. He's used steroids to beef himself up until his balls have shrunk up like LeSeur peas, he's done that, but he doesn't do it now, and the rumor about his smoking carton after carton of Winston Reds is just pure hogwash.

We discussed how my life had changed since the publication of Poda, from my being a little-known poet to a man who was suddenly hanging out with sort-of famous people. Chuck was a larger man than I'd expected—short but well-built and stocky, and we agreed that I should work on a screenplay of my novel, thinking first and foremost, "Where does Benecio del Toro fit into this movie?"

It hasn't happened yet, which is why I'm not yet hanging with Uma Thurman. But all things in their Own Time.

I could tell Chuck was pretty hoisted. In fact, I had my doubts if he'd remember any of the evening—but the book proves me wrong, because he says in it so much of what he shared with me that night. Like the parts about Brad Pitt. And Brad Pitt wasn't even Achilles then, and he hadn't ever gotten drunk with Peter O'Toole after a shoot... wow, Time Sure Flies.

Just like Stranger than Fiction, which at press time is already oddly... dated, as it deals with celebrities and popular culture so much. Yet it stands as something of a memoir of its author, who nevertheless has gone on to publish three major novels and grow personally and as a writer in many and sundry ways since the pieces in the collection first appeared. And me, too. I just don't want the reader of the book to think that I really said all that stuff I'm supposed to have said... or maybe I did, but it was just the single-malt talking, and I've since given it up.

But as for some of the other vignettes, certain things sure... make you wonder. But still, it's not Stranger than Fiction.

Maybe that's the scary part.


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