A Short and Unhappy Life
An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday. 319 pp. $24.95
Chuck Palahniuk has been jolting literary sensibilities with his mix of stomach-bending horror and gleefully abrasive satire since 1996's Fight Club. By any fair measure, he possesses one of the most feverish imaginations in American letters. He has other strengths I'm not sure he's received proper credit for. His prose is clipped, edgy stuff, and he writes with authority about yearning and love among troubled misfits. He also knows how to pull together a lot of narrative threads into a thrilling whole. Take Lullaby, in which we get an African song that kills those who listen to it, a real estate agent who specializes in haunted houses and a makeshift "family" on a deeply surreal road-trip, just to touch on a few highlights. By Lullaby's end, all of these disparate elements are brought together to carry great emotional weight.
His latest novel, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, is even more ambitious, but here Palahniuk's swirl of characters and plotlines never gels, and the story lurches dangerously toward incoherence. The tale defies simple description, but concerns a country boy, Buster "Rant" Casey, who kills several relatives with poisonous insects, starts a fast-spreading, nationwide rabies epidemic and becomes a legend in a new counter-culture sport, "Party Crashing."
Palahniuk lays the shocks on pretty thick -- a stripper gets her toes gnawed off, and the hero spends much of the early part of the book sniffing used sanitary pads -- but maybe the most shocking thing about Rant is how derivative it is.
A rabies epidemic that turns people into zombies with a taste for human flesh could be electrifying stuff for a horror story. And it was, back in 1977, when David Cronenberg first explored the idea in Rabid. Three thousand badly done rip-offs later, it's getting stale. In one vignette, Rant plays a diseased prank at a small-town celebration and sets off a horrifying chain reaction. In no time, the gathered villagers, stuffed on cake, are vomiting helplessly on one another. The scene was done better when it was done first in Stephen King's "The Body." (Full disclosure: King is my dad.) Characters in Rant pass their free time by plugging into virtual reality experiences just like the heroes of "The Matrix." And so on.
It's even more disheartening, though, to find Palahniuk cannibalizing himself. The sport of "Party Crashing" turns out to be a citywide demolition derby, in which players smash their decorated cars into one another to remind themselves they're really alive. It's a watered-down automotive version of Fight Club (a fact Palahniuk glumly seems to admit in the last pages of the book). Likewise, his riffs about the dominant culture suffocating the hopes and dreams of the world's outsiders are creeping past their sell-by date.
Rant's problems are not just a matter of content, but also of form. The novel is composed as an oral history, in the style of one of Studs Terkel's books, and Palahniuk clearly has fun leaping from voice to voice. But in the end, even this serves to drive the reader away from the story because the only character not heard from is Buster "Rant" Casey himself, and the result is a book that feels hollow at the center. For all the fuss made about him, Rant remains an unknowable blank. (One caveat: It turns out at the end that maybe one of the characters we've been hearing from is Rant. Or isn't. I don't know. Which tells you that either your critic came up short or the novelist did, and I'm saying it's not me.)
The frailty of memory and the impossibility of ever writing a true history are among the book's major chords. In the interest of exploring them, Palahniuk introduces a time-travel element, very late in the narrative, a move that is, frankly, stupid in a toss-the-book-across-the-room kind of way.
All this makes Rant sound about as bad as can be, but some of Palahniuk's strengths shine through, despite his efforts to sabotage himself. His books are always jammed to capacity with oddball facts (he's a one-man, punk-rock Google), and Rant is no exception. And when Palahniuk isn't recycling himself or others, there are hints of great work to come.
One episode, early on, recounts how two boys discover old paint cans filled with rare 19th-century coins. They share them with the rest of the kids in their school, an act that destroys the economy of Rant's small town and reveals the avarice and moral irresponsibility of the grown-ups: "[There were] adults selling helium balloons for a hundred bucks to kids who didn't know any better. . . . Greed on top of greed." Without being imitative of Twain, this bit reads like a neat classic of Americana in the vein of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."
For all Rant's flaws, such moments serve to remind us that even in a lousy Palahniuk novel, you'll find more than your weekly prescribed dose of humor and humanity, cleverness and outrage. The next book will be better. *
Joe Hill's novel "Heart-Shaped Box" was published last month.