He seems normal

Times Staff Writer

At the very least, "Snuff" is a difficult book to discuss over dinner. With its assemblage of nasty fluids -- bodily and otherwise -- and its over-the-hill-porn-star heroine who plans to copulate literally to death by taking on 600 men in quick succession, it's also nearly impossible to describe without squirming.

But for Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the novel, which comes out Tuesday, the book is just another chance to push the envelope. His is a nearly scholarly detachment from his subject matter. He discusses his story of paunchy, naked men and lurking vaginal embolism with a friendly, smirk-free smile behind wire-rim glasses.

A handsome, well-exercised 46-year-old with an almost Midwestern politeness, Palahniuk was looking back over his writing career at a funky restaurant that was once Ginger's Sexy Sauna, a massage joint that offered more than just a cure for a bad back.

Digging into his steak, he began talking about Annabel Chong, the USC student who offered herself as the object of a record-breaking mass sex scene in 1995.

"The fact that it was so unresolved was very attractive," Palahniuk said of the cultural dissonance between those who considered Chong a take-charge feminist and others who condemned her as a moral travesty. His novels, he said, come from that sort of muddy debate, "things that the culture really can't talk about openly."

Palahniuk's method is to sniff out such subjects, then pounce. "Things that last in the culture tend to be those unresolved issues," he said. "Like Ira Levin's 'The Stepford Wives' was a wonderful, entertaining way to discuss what Susan Faludi would later call backlash. Levin did that again with women's health and abortion with 'Rosemary's Baby.' He was always so ahead of the curve."

Of course, android housewives and devil babies are highly metaphorical and nuanced compared with Palahniuk's subjects.. "Fight Club," his 1996 debut, was about guys who go to office jobs tasting their own blood after getting in touch with their masculinity through basement brawls. "Choke," the 2001 novel that opens as a film in August, concerns a sex addict who raises money by choking on dinner in fancy restaurants. And now there's "Snuff," which finds new ways to connect sex and death.

"It's always about finding these cultural bugaboos," he said, "things that people can't talk about openly, and creating a metaphor that lets people deal with it."

A constant gardener

CULTURAL bugaboos have been good to Palahniuk, whose work Michael Silverblatt has described as part of the "transgressive fiction" genre. These days the writer, who came out as gay in 2003, lives with his partner and his dogs on eight acres along Washington's scenic Columbia River gorge, including a large garden to which he admits to being pathologically devoted.

Besides publishing nine novels, with total sales nearing 3 million copies, as well as a book of stories and an engaging portrait of Portland, Ore., "Fugitive and Refugees," Palahniuk has managed one of the most difficult feats of the publishing world: appealing to the elusive readership of young males.

He's like the world's coolest camp counselor, the sort who looks out for his kids and isn't above telling a few dirty stories and buying them beer.

The horror of the body, a revolt against consumerism and regeneration through violence are his recurring themes.

Detractors have said he's reached young men with a catalog of gross-out horrors. "We get extended riffs on venereal disease, genital odor, used feminine products, boogers and so on," Steve Almond wrote in his Times review of "Choke." "This is known in political circles as appealing to the base."

That base throngs to his legendary readings for a chance to meet their hero, and he doesn't want to let them down. More than 100 people, he said, have passed out at his readings of a short story called "Guts," about a teenager's catastrophic misadventures while masturbating.

"What a joy that was to read," said Palahniuk, recalling those appearances and looking wistful. "I wish I could read that for the rest of my life."

Palahniuk grew up in the Washington desert, first in a mobile home with his parents and then, after his father left, on his grandparents' farm.

He moved to Portland in 1980, right after graduating high school. It was still the punk era, and Palahniuk was turned on by the aesthetic he heard in bands like the Germs and Generation X.

"Punk songs all sounded alike," he said. "They started really intense, for 2 1/2 minutes, and then ended abruptly. And I found that really colored my taste in short stories. I wanted a story to enter midstream, and then go for several pages, and then end on these rushed, clunky notes."

He found this quality in his favorite writers, such as Shirley Jackson and Stephen King and the writers of Ellery Queen mysteries, and tried to bring it to his own work. One of his earliest efforts -- a scene about a teenager who orders a blow-up sex doll -- showed him, when he presented it at a workshop, the power of the written word: His fellow writers, he said, told him it was too upsetting. "And they asked me to leave."

Palahniuk came to writing late: He wrote "Fight Club" -- which opens with its narrator holding the barrel of a gun in his mouth, feeling the silencer holes with his tongue -- in his early 30s. He was working as a diesel mechanic and honing his prose by reading to drunk, hostile audiences in bars.

From the pits to Mr. Pitt

THAT first novel sold so poorly that it came close to being pulped. Then the "Fight Club" film, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, bombed at the box office but developed into an enormous cult move on DVD -- "A Clockwork Orange" for a younger generation. (His family has had its share of violence: In 1999, Palahniuk's father, who as a child watched his own father kill his wife and years later was shot, and then incinerated, by the husband of a woman he'd met through an ad.)

As Palahniuk went from a voyeur of the underground to a famous cult writer, some things became more difficult. He researched that first novel and another by eavesdropping on support groups for alcoholics and for the terminally ill. He'd still be observing them if fame hadn't made his image too familiar.

"It's storytelling," he said of the meetings. "It's better than TV. It's just one incredible story after another. And it's such an inventory of storytelling devices: The way people hold themselves, what they do with their hands when they speak. And people who go on a regular basis are really performers: They have really honed their craft to get the best possible reaction. . . . So it's just a joy!"

The ideas, these days, literally come to Palahniuk. "Now people seek me out to tell me their stories."

It happened after "Survivor" when a call girl and an exotic dancer approached him and gave him a window into their worlds and helped fill in "Snuff." "When I got out on the road and meet people, I don't have to say a word: They say everything."

His method resembles that of a traveling, pre-modern storyteller.

"Sundays tend to be a day where just I do nothing but visit people," he said. "It's kind of like trick or treating.

"If somebody tells me a great story, I'll tell the story at the next house I visit, and if it resonates with them, and they tell me a different version of the story. After two or three households I've got these themes built out in a way I could never imagine from my own experience."

He doesn't bring a notebook: If a story sticks with him after a full day out, he's onto something.

Then, despite all the fame and success, Palahniuk does what he's been doing since before his first published novel: He takes the ideas to his weekly writers group and then listens to find out which stories connect.

Knowing his audience

BY THE time his writing reaches his "cult" -- the rabid young readers who come to his readings and camp out on his website, he's ready.

Many of these fans have limited experience with literary events. "They are going to their first reading, and they are so afraid it's gonna suck," he said. "That's one of my reasons to make readings kind of over the top. . . . You just don't want to break their hearts."

Dennis Widmyer, a Los Angeles based filmmaker who created the author's official site, in 1999, called the effect "a frenzy." "The most popular e-mail I'm getting is 'Why can't Chuck come here?' " said Widmyer, 30. "That's Australia, that's Asia, that's South America. But he can only be in so many places at once."

When he was in college, at the University of Oregon, in the '80s, Palahniuk saw a porn film of which he remembers almost nothing except one accidental scene. "There was a moment when the couple or the three-way, or whatever, is going at it, by a mirrored headboard. And behind this frenzy of sexual activity, you could see this folding table, and people standing around with cigarettes and Cheetos and Big Gulps -- and bored out of their minds."

This offstage tableau is the setting of most of "Snuff"; a character complains that the cattle-call is "worse than jury duty." It's hardly a setting that would attract most novelists. To Palahniuk, though, it's a chance to take the traditional elements of character and put them in a place they've rarely been before.

It's no different, he said, than Mozart's opera, "The Abduction From the Seraglio."

"In the movie," he said of "Amadeus," "everyone's shocked that he's gonna set this opera in a bordello, in a harem. It's seen as completely corrupt. But then they recognize that despite the setting, and the salacious nature of if, it's still about love."

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scott.timberg@latimes.com

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