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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #42 (October 14-21, 2003), page 16.
You said it, not me
Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon
By Chuck Palahniuk
Crown Publishers, 2003
Hardcover, 176 pages, $16.00
By Jeff Wenger
Chuck Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club and other books, including this year’s Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon. Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, has commissioned writers of some repute to jot travelogues about their towns, and it was thoughtful of them to add "Oregon" to the title here, lest it be confused with that other one in Maine.
Palahniuk is much esteemed by nihilistic youth, of which there is no shortage in his City of Roses. The good news is — and I can vouch for this — that it is possible to live for at least three years, one month, and eight days in Portland without meeting most of the malcontents depicted in Fugitives and Refugees. The bad news is — and I do hereby vouch for this — that it is unethical to pan a book without reading every single word, and so it is that I cannot remember a less pleasant reading experience than Fugitives and Refugees.
The premise for the title comes from Palahniuk’s friend, Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love. In the introduction he writes: "Katherine’s theory is that everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the cheapest place where they can live is Portland. This gives us the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among the misfits.
‘We just accumulate more and more strange people,’ she says. ‘All we are are the fugitives and refugees.’"
Helping, presumably, to put the Boat People into proper context.
Palahniuk thereafter sinks to great depths to prove her right. Fugitives and Refugees finds no hopeful stories of reinvention or rejuvenation in the Wild West, but instead presents a cavalcade of freaks. Palahniuk’s fans will enjoy Fugitives and Refugees because it speaks of him in a personal, sometimes autobiographical tone. The result will be similar to William Shatner at a Star Trek convention — fans droolingly eat it up while impartial bystanders wonder at the mass hysteria. The difference being that Trekkies go home and stay up all night on their computer, while Palahniuk’s enthusiasts throw bricks through windows at Starbucks.
He is empty and so they are empty. His emptiness, conveyed in an artistic manner (or at least one easy to read), further hollows them, validating antisocial behavior from thievery to drugs to superstitions to orgiastic exhibition.
There is a measure of satisfaction in having a Portlander acknowledge the peculiar regional pronunciation of Willamette, Couch, and Glisan. This Palahniuk does in an early chapter on Portland vocabulary, but, however forthrightly he may begin, this quickly deteriorates to a demonstration of just how very witty and very ironic he and his crowd are. Apparently there is no building downtown, or neighborhood in the vicinity, that doesn’t carry some droll designation. Some of the entries seem contrived and are at any rate unfunny. For example, we learn "Prostit-tot: Homeless street kids who trade sex for money."
Well now. Maybe that’s the sort of thing Palahniuk says because he’s really a sensitive guy, putting up a tough exterior in the face of a city’s harsh realities. But in the end, there is the thing said in jest and then there is the thing that is written, slept on, run past an editor, and subsequently published.
Palahniuk must be forty years old, and he should really know better. Children are watching.