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Chuck Palahniuk: A Heart Breaking Life of Staggering Weirdness

Under the skin of America’s most deranged novelist

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

CHUCK PALAHNIUK IS PACKING BOXES, large boxes and small boxes. Into some of the boxes go Whitman’s Samplers, chocolate-covered cherries, necklaces strung by him with beads that spell out the names of the addressees, small rubber ducks, birthday candles, novelty erasers and fake dog poo. Others are getting hundreds of teriyaki-steak-scented room fresheners, and lots of T-bone-steak-shaped bathmats, and bunches of very lifelike plastic limbs, hacked off at the joints bloodily – arms, legs, feet, hands. Chuck packs everything just so. Chuck is methodic about his business. He’s happy. He couldn’t be more at peace.

Not far from the packing area is the desk where Chuck works on his books when he’s not bundling all that weird stuff into boxes, to send to his legion of fan-mail-writing fans and to bookstores nationwide, as props for his readings. The most famous of his books is Fight Club, which was made into a movie in 1999, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, but he’s also written eight others, with titles like Survivor, Lullaby, Choke and Invisible Monsters. Most have been best sellers. Taken as one, what they’re about is testosterone, balls-out fist-fighting, rage, mass suicide, necrophilia, estrogen therapy, chaos, sex addiction, disfigured fashion models, God, fetal brain-cell harvesting, telekinesis, pop-culture-hating anti-consumerism and, finally, the redemptive power of community. It’s the stuff that circulates in Chuck’s brain. It’s the stuff that Chuck has got to get down on paper before it disappears. It’s the stuff that readers who have never read books before – blue-collar types, goths, anarchists, the chronically unemployed, the snaggletoothed and the highly tattooed — love to read. They call him “the new generation’s Kurt Vonnegut” and show up en masse at his readings, to listen to him read stories, tell stories and answer questions, because he puts on quite some show.

This morning, Chuck wakes up at three, driven out of sleep by Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of Haunted, his latest. Maslin has long been a Chuck supporter, but this time around she poops on him. She calls his book “ugly overkill.” So, Chuck’s in distress – “a little heartbroken,” he says – though he hasn’t actually read the review. “It’s just been regurgitated to me by a whole bunch of people,” he says somberly. “People can’t wait to lay that bone at your feet. I mean, what am I supposed to do with that knowledge?”

He doesn’t know. What he does know is that, historically, bad reviews have led to best-seller-size sales, an appropriate perversity in Chuckland, and all he can do now is pack boxes. Today he has a helper. He and his helper are unspooling ribbon and gathering clumps of cavity-filling Mylar confetti – “shred,” Chuck calls it.

“Now, get two five-foot-long complementary-colored ribbons,” Chuck says. “No! Not those! My God! Are you colorblind? Ok, now, put Mr. Duck with his flat side against the box wall facing you. Is Mr. Duck nested? Ok, Now, get your dog shit. Put the dog shit on the candles. Let’s put some more shred in. Don’t skimp on the shred. I’ve got tons of shred. I want them to be finding shred in their carpet for months to come.”

Going along, he says, “It gets me really high to know that during any week, 75 to 100 packages are arriving on all these doorsteps. But then there’s this one kid who wrote me back, saying, ‘Dude, we used to make necklaces like this in camp, when I was seven!’ That made me feel ‘Oh, this is why people made fun of me in high school.’ Ok. Got it.”

From there he remembers the time in junior high when Glenda Haas, a beauty freshly arrived from the Deep South, breaks her necklace, scattering glittering crystal beads all over the school hallway. Full of puppy love, Chuck drops to his knees to help her pick them up. (For every four beads he returns to her, he steals two for himself, such is his love… .) At one point, though, she looks over at him. “Y’all are really sweet,” she says, ever so pleasantly. “When I moved here, everybody told me y’all were retarded.”

Chuck grabs some shred and presses it into a box.

“I suddenly realized that all my peers were telling her that I was retarded,” Chuck says. “It was devastating.” He closes the box and places it on top of a host of other closed boxes. “How do you recover from that?”

HE WRITES THESE BOOKS IN WHICH horrific things happen – in a story called “Guts,” which appears as its own tale inside Haunted, a kid jerking off in the family pool decides to up the thrill ante by positioning his rectum over the pool’s vacuum pump, and out burble his intestines – yet he hardly looks the type. At the age of forty-three, he looks anonymously mild. He wears white button-down shirts tucked into prep-school khakis belted midriff-high, with docksider-type mocs on his feet. His dark hair is short and neatly styled. In his dust-jacket pictures, he’s a chiseled male model; in person, not so much. He speaks with precise diction and is happily long-winded. His apartment in Vancouver, Washington, where he does his box packing, is well-kept and spare, nothing in the fridge but two six packs of Full Sail beer and a few slices of old pizza. He is unfailingly polite. Life has surrounded him with misery – suicides, murders, incinerations – yet the effects of it largely seem to be coiled elsewhere. Or maybe that’s just how he appears today, because the record suggests a certain proclivity for unsettled, oddball-type flux.

For instance, in college, at the University of Oregon, where he graduated with a journalism degree, Chuck sometimes wasn’t even Chuck. He was Nick. When Chuck wanted to go out flirting or drugging or drinking or brawling, he went by the name of Nick. He used to be a bulked-up weight lifter but is now quite slender. Also, in 1997, he decided he didn’t want to have to decide what to wear every morning, so he went to a farm store and bought fifteen identical Amish outfits. The hat, the suspenders, the brown trousers, the shoes – he made his way around town as Amish Chuck for six months straight. He’s something of a prankster, too, and during public events he used to claim possession of Oprah Winfrey’s diaphragm, which he was going to put up on eBay, ha-ha. Finally, between the penultimate and final drafts of his books, Chuck is known to shave his head down to the nubs with electric shears, then smear on a lye-based depilatory to ensure perfection in a cue-ball-smooth cranium. He has his reasons. One of them is “It’s a way of acknowledging that nothing is so sacred that it can’t be made better. Suddenly that precious person who you’ve primped and worked so carefully to make look good, there’s no saving that person. That person is fucked. He’s lost his ego. He’s lost his identity. He’s been humiliated. And it totally frees you up.”

So, that’s the kind of guy Chuck is.

WHERE CHUCK COMES FROM IS the shrimpy farming town of Burbank, Washington, where he lives in a trailer just across the street from the Burbank Tavern, which his father visits regularly. His father, Fred, and his mom, Carol, fight often, loudly. Fred works for the railroad. Sometimes, when Fred hears of a train wreck, he gathers the family to go scavenge among the smoking ruins. “It was,” Chuck says, “spooky and exciting.”

When Chuck is fourteen, his dad moves out of the house.

When Chuck is sixteen, he realizes he is gay.

When Chuck is eighteen, his father tells him the real story of his grandparents’ deaths. Up until that time, he’d been led to believe that diphtheria got them. Now Fred lays out the truth from his vantage point: He’s three years old and hiding under a bed while his father, Chuck’s grandfather, calls out his name. From under the bed, all Fred can see are his pop’s hobnail logging boots and the muzzle of a gun. A few moments earlier, his father had used that gun to shoot and kill his wife – Fred’s mother, Chuck’s grandmother – thereby ending an alleged argument over the putative extravagance of a sewing machine she’d just bought. Now he’s looking for his son. He wants to kill his son. Frustrated, he turns the gun on himself and pulls the trigger. He dies. Fred lives.

“I was sort of pleasantly surprised by what happened,” Chuck says one day, cool as a cucumber. “It seemed sort of like a fairly glamorous thing happening to an otherwise rather boring family.”

When Chuck is twenty-two, he begins a thirteen-year run working for Freightliner Trucks, as a front-axle installation man and a Service Documentation Specialist. He hauls himself through the world in a crummy 1977 Mercury Bobcat. He is angry. He gets in brawls, lots of brawls. (“After one, I’d be fine. Typically full of regret and remorse. But fine.”) In 1991, he joins a local writers workshop run by the estimable Tom Spanbauer and begins to write his stuff.

When Chuck is thirty-four, he channels everything he’s got, all his pent-up rage and anger, into what would become Fight Club. It finds a publisher.

When Chuck is thirty-six, with Fight Club the movie about to be cast, his father evinces an intense desire for Winona Ryder, who is supposedly up for a role. “He was obsessed with her,” Chuck says. “I was terrified that he was going to come to the set expecting some sort of liaison with her. He was a real hound dog that way. He had a lot of girlfriends, always did.”

When Chuck is thirty-seven, his father reads an appealing personal ad. The headline of the ad is KISMET. Returning to Kismet’s house after their third date, he and this Kismet are sprung upon by the woman’s ex-husband. The man shoots them both, then incinerates their bodies.

After three years on Zoloft and two years off, Chuck has just about maybe got a grip on what happened that day. “My father’s first memories were of hiding under that bed, his father having just killed his mother,” he says. “After that, he was always this man still looking for his mother. Then, eventually, he found this woman, and once again a man with a gun comes back into the picture. And kills her. And then kills him.” He goes on, “In a way, I can’t help but admire the shape of this perfect completion of a thing that started so long ago. I find comfort in that. That things happen for a reason and according to a pattern.”

This, then, has been the dominant swerve of Chuck’s life. Chuck can’t make these things up. Chuck can’t make these things go away. But he can make sense of them, or at least try.

AS IT HAPPENS, HE ALSO DOESN’T make up many of the heartbreaking and tragically humorous stories that appear in his books. Take “Guts.” He used to read it in public, and when he gets to the bit about the pool vacuum and the kid having to bite through his own intestines to save himself from drowning, many a listener would either puke or pass out, which causes Chuck to flash his eyes, grin and say, “That really sort of tickles me.” The character who shoves the carrot up his butt in the same story was once Chuck’s best friend (no longer, though, not since the story’s publication). The anecdote about the guy who threads a length of wax into his penis – another of Chuck’s pals did that. The pool-pump fiasco Chuck got from a sex addict, while researching sex addiction for his book Choke.

At earlier readings, all that Chuck’s fans wanted to know was where their local fight club was, or they’d say to him, “Can I hit you really, really hard?” Post-“Guts,” all Chuck’s fans want to do is tell Chuck their own deepest, darkest personal stories. Recently, this one girl tells him in raucous detail how her first masturbatory experiences came through the specific application of an electric Cookie Monster toothbrush. Chuck is all ears, because he firmly believes stories like these need to be preserved. “I consider them great reflections of the human experience, and it’d break my heart if they weren’t written down,” he says. “I view what I do almost like a journalistic thing. I’m much more a bookkeeper, documentarian or accountant than a writer. In fact, I’m not a very good writer. But I am good at identifying stories and piecing them together into something larger. I can take a lot of data and assemble it into something.” He says, “These are the stories that won’t be optioned by the movies. Dakota Fanning is never going to look up at Meryl Streep and say, ‘Mommy, why does Cookie Monster smell like pussy?'”

Obviously, Chuck’s fans aren’t like most other writers’ fans. They’re not tweedy or beret-wearing. Pretty much they come from where Chuck comes from: trailer parks and assembly lines. They’re singularly devoted to him, with many of the die-hards belonging to his official Web site, ChuckPalahniuk.net, also known as the Cult, where you can read Chuck’s essays on writing, join Chuck-oriented writers workshops, buy Cult-emblazoned T-shirts ($12) and bumper stickers ($1) and hang out with like-minded Chuck nuts in the forums.

Also, these fans sometimes show up at his book-tour readings having scarred their arms with lye, in homage to the infamous lye scene in Fight Club (in the movie, as in real life, lye burns are considered a totem of dedication). It used to be they’d ask Chuck to autograph their arms or legs; then they’d run out and have his signature seared into their flesh. Chuck will no longer sign body parts, but at those readings, uproarious affairs often attended by hundreds, he always makes time to meet and greet. He’s generous like that. He’ll sign books for hours, no matter how tired he is or frayed his nerves become.

In Menlo Park, California, at Kepler’s Bookstore, they present themselves in banged-up jeans, with lip rings and skullcap hair. Some bear the necklaces that Chuck’s made for them with his own hands and sent to them as thanks for their fan mail, along with rubber ducks, fake poo and the rest of it. Some are trembling and hesitant. Some look him in the eye, hoping to glimpse whatever’s inside. Chuck has a pen at the ready. A guy hands him a book.

“May I make it out to you?” Chuck asks.
“What’s your name?”
“Jack.”
“Jack?”
“Or, Matt.”
“Matt?”
“Jack.”
Do you want Jack or Matt?”
“Whatever.”
“Oh, my God,” Chuck says.

Another Matt couldn’t make it, but his mom has, so she’s on the phone with him. She has an armful of Chuck’s books. Chuck reaches for her phone. Chuck is on the phone with Matt. Chuck says, levelly, “You’re going to die in seven days.”

Another fan says, “My friend has a bladder infection, and she’s wondering if you’ve ever passed a kidney stone.”

“Two,” says Chuck. “My biggest was nine millimeters, the other was two or three millimeters.”
“Have you ever tasted crepe paper?” 
“No … ” 
“We took our vacation time to follow your whole tour.” 
“Good to see you again. What a treat!” 
“What music do you listen to?” 
“I use music like a drug to achieve a continuity of mood in whatever I’m writing. I’ve been listening to a lot of older Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon.”

Later, he says that after one reading, he was gifted a fisting dildo that he immediately re-gifted. He says that after another reading a thirteen-year-old girl marched up and made an announcement: “I want your sperm! I want to be impregnated by you!” He says that this thirteen-year-old-girl’s mom then said, “Isn’t she cute?” He says that he then thought, “Oh, boy.”

A LOT OF CHUCK DATA, READY FOR assemblage into something larger: Chuck has been seriously suicidal and has long known how he was going to do it; he’d seal up his truck, light a hibachi for carbon-monoxide production, down some Ambien, have a few drinks, and call it a day. After trimming his fingernails, he puts them in his mouth, runs them between his teeth and rather vigorously enjoys the small cutting pain. In college, he sometimes paid the rent by dealing Ecstasy and mushrooms. Once, while blown away on LSD and working out at the gym, he ruptured a few disks in his neck and dislocated both arms, and has fond memories of this. “The sound was fantastic!” he says happily. “It made everybody there sick!” He used to be a drinker and pothead. He is still resolutely enamored of painkillers, Vicodin being his favorite; put a Vicodin in front of him – or any pill, really – and you’ll have a friend for life. Chuck says he didn’t really love his dad until after his dad was murdered and his anxiety over the possibility of his dad hitting on Winona Ryder had lifted. He may be serious, or not.

Chuck kept his homosexuality a secret until late 2003, when something happens that’s become a kind of oft-repeated tale of only-in-Chuckland proportions. In Chuck’s version of the event, a writer profiling him for Entertainment Weekly agrees to keep his sexual orientation out of the piece, then at the last minute recants and says that it will be printed. Chuck goes ballistic and posts an audioblog entry on the Cult Web site in which he outs himself to his fans and says some terrible things about the writer’s past that are, in fact, not entirely true. Shortly thereafter, he pulls the audioblog from the site and apologizes profusely.

“I do sincerely regret sort of lashing out against the writer,” he says today. “But, really, it was like they were going to completely trivialize me. I mean, it doesn’t matter what I do with my life or what I produce? What matters is what I do with my dick?”

But here’s the oddity. The EW story doesn’t out him. All it says is that he “has no wife and declines to discuss his personal life on the record.” Moreover, while recording the audioblog, Chuck had the story in his hands and even said that it didn’t out him. So why his rage and fury? Maybe it has something to do with certain mysterious other journalists who were, he said in the recording, actually trying to extort money from him in exchange for their silence. Or maybe the stress of being on tour at the time simply fried his synapses beyond logic and understanding. Stranger things.

These days he is no longer reading “Guts” to audiences. Instead, he’s chosen another story from inside Haunted, called “Hot Potting.” In this one, a man slips into a thermal hot spring in the Pacific Northwest and is quickly boiled near unto death, a smell coming off him like “bacon or Spam, sliced thick and hissing crisp in its own hot fat”; before finally succumbing, the guy spends a few hours in mortal agony, his flesh falling apart, wolves circling, pain, pain. At Kepler’s, Chuck holds a pre-event briefing with the staff, to tell them about the story and about those boxes he’d sent them earlier, containing the teriyaki-steak room fresheners, the hacked-off plastic limbs and the T-bone-steak-shaped bathmats.

He says, “The idea is to distribute the air fresheners evenly throughout the room.
“Ok.”
“There’s 200 total,” he says. “So, depending on the size of the audience, it means every second, third or fifth person gets one. It creates this sort of odd expectation, and people start murmuring.”

“Ok,” they say. “Well, the kids department is right behind the podium. Maybe we’ll close it.”

“That’d be smart of you,” Chuck says. Pause. “Then I’ll read ‘Hot Potting.’ Someone steps outside and we smell meat cooking, and at that point the room will be filled with the hot, heavy smell of cooking steak, and people have already been instructed to rub it on their hands and faces.”
“Oh!”
“It’s a sort of smell-o-vision plot point,” he says, tilting his head.

The reading begins. The audience groans at the right moments and claps wildly at the denouement. Next, Chuck whizzes those bloody plastic limbs into the audience, just to cheer everyone up after the downbeat boiled-body story.

“I want an arm!” someone shouts.
“A leg!”

After that, Chuck fields questions: you ask one, you get a T-bone-shaped bathmat.

Later, Chuck says, “I’m perpetually shy. I have to create a structure that allows me to be with people, which is why I take all that shit to an event, so I don’t fall back into my why-the-fuck-are-they-all-looking-at-me identity, this sort of panicked, angry, shy, frightened person.”

WHEN CHUCK IS IN SECOND GRADE, a classmate brings a goldfish to show-and-tell and instantly becomes the center of attention. Chuck is enraged. The rest of the kids pile outside for recess. Chuck stays put, noses around and turns up some Comet cleanser. Chuck pours Comet into the fishbowl, a little pyramid of it. The kids return. The fish water has turned green. The fish is dead. No one can figure it out. It’s a horrible mystery to everyone but Chuck.

“I will regret doing that for the rest of my life,” Chuck says. “I think who you are in second grade is who you are for life.”

For a while, Chuck ponders the implications of this truth, having no choice but to fold into it the long, brooding shadow of his grandmother’s murder, his grandfather’s suicide, his father’s murder, the things that happen for a reason, the things that happen according to a pattern, the goldfish incident, the Glenda Haas incident (“Everybody told me y’all were retarded …”), the devastation, the universally inevitable coming of his own perfect completion, the final assemblage of all the data of his life at the end.

“Well, I’m a little nervous, because sometimes I do have these fits of rage that come out of nowhere,” he says one afternoon, thoughtfully. “Road rage. Bad restaurant service. Long lines at the post office. Any little trigger. I would explode. I think sometimes I behaved – behave – atrociously. But I’m trying not to be like that. I think maybe we keep certain things alive in our minds just so we don’t do them again. I have to be aware. And I always have to think, ‘Am I about to kill another goldfish?'” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Fight Club

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