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By Shelly Ridenour

MARCH 8, 1999: 

"Survivor" by Chuck Palahniuk, W.W. Norton, 289 pages, $23.95

To be honest, I never took novelist Chuck Palahniuk as the kind of guy who would go for gimmicks.

So I was more than a little skeptical to open his new book, "Survivor," and find it starts at page 289 and counts its way back. But, c'mon, it's Chuck Palahniuk, the man who gave us the ferocious, speeding and frightful "Fight Club," a book that could knock other modern novels off the shelf with its anger and genius.

The structure of "Survivor" isn't just some cute flashback throwaway. Protagonist (of sorts) Tender Branson is alone in the cockpit of a hijacked 747 set to cruise until the needle hits E, using the morbidly fascinating black box to record the story of his life - but his words end up being so much scarier than the usual "Oh my God! We're going down!"

The last survivor of the Creedish Death Cult (a fictional melding of Amish work ethic, the redneck trappings of Ruby Ridge and the blind faith of Heaven's Gate), Branson has spent the past year as the ultimate disposable hero. His story starts when he is turned out of the cult's Midwestern nest; as the second son, he is a second citizen, trained to work his fingers to the bone doing domestic chores for yuppies, then send his paycheck to the church elders. After the entire commune kills itself to foil an FBI raid, religious doctrine dictates all members follow suit. But Tender Branson can't bring himself to do it.

He's not alone, either. But over the next ten years, the rest of the survivors drop like flies, occasionally in a suspicious manner. Is someone killing the ones who won't kill themselves? It's a fear that grips Branson even as he finds himself being elevated to the status of a steroid- and collagen-pumped media messiah and author of the best selling "Book of Very Common Prayer" - featuring The Prayer to Delay Orgasm and the Prayer to Silence Car Alarms; in other words, a scathingly satirical composite of Jerry Falwell, John Gray and the evil genius behind all those "Chicken Soup" tomes. In still more words, a Wednesday Oprah guru waiting to happen.

Faster than you can say Jessica Hahn, it all unravels, as the inevitable public backlash begins and his supposedly long-dead brother shows up - whether to complete the inevitable or actually save his life is a nagging mystery, as the pace of this absurd, psychological thriller reaches a whiplash velocity.

With an economical style and prose, and a rare understanding of the differences between cynicism and snideness, Palahniuk is carrying on the reckless legacy of Jerzy Kosinski. Whether you call it a black comedy or a modern Bible story of Cain and Abel proportions, "Survivor" - gimmicks or no - is ultimately the work of one of the few writers out there taking real chances.

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