Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Art of Pain

'Fight Club' author Chuck Palahniuk specializes in the visceral.

By Ashley Fantz

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Chuck Palahniuk is no sissy.

If he wanted to, he could probably take Tyler Durden. Chuck might hit him with a girl’s roundhouse to the neck. And then, when he felt the sting blossom on his reddened knuckles, he would grab Tyler’s greasy hair and drive his head into the worn knee of his bluejeans.

This would go on for about 15 minutes — Tyler enjoying his turn with poetic backhand slaps, a bird-like open-hand thrust to the bridge of Chuck’s nose, and a gymnastic kick to the groin.

“I’m not a tough guy,” Palahniuk says. “I’m just a frustrated man.”

The author of Fight Club, being released this weekend as a film starring Brad Pitt as the pain-thirsty Tyler Durden, truly suffered for his art. When he and his friends were on a mountain hiking vacation, a group of obnoxious drunks set up camp next door.

“It was the middle of the night and they were making lots of noise,” he recalls. “So I went over to shut them up.”

Palahniuk came back to his job a few days later with earth-tone eyes. The bruises lasted for months.

“No one would acknowledge what I had done over vacation. They just talked to my chest for three months,” he says. “You can look bad enough sometimes that no one will confront you about it. I started thinking how far could you push this … what about a cult of underground fight clubs.”

At the time, Palahniuk was 27 and a “service documentation specialist.” In plain English that means a mechanic who writes about diesel trucks for a freight company. In one afternoon he wrote Chapter 6, or the section of the novel known as the “rules,” on a clipboard underneath a truck. It was, he says, the only place he could enjoy privacy. He told no one at the shop what he was doing, especially a mechanic named Durden who was fired for sexual harassment.

Palahniuk finished the rest of the 208-page book in three months, most of which he credits to accidentally moving into a house without cable hook-up. He took the manuscript to a writers’ workshop in Portland, Oregon, where he still lives on a stretch of country land with his friends. The leader of the workshop knew an agent at W.W. Norton & Company who immediately bought the manuscript. As dizzying as a punch he never saw coming, Twentieth Century Fox executive Raymond Bon Giovanni read the book and fell in love with its assertion that life is experienced fully when it’s constantly threatened. But Bon Giovanni died before he saw the visual realization of Fight Club. His last dying wish, according to his self-written obituary, was to see the gritty novel become a movie.

Seven director David Fincher also read the book. Not long after, the director waited on Brad Pitt’s New York City doorstep until 3 a.m. two years ago while the actor was filming Meet Joe Black to convince him to give the apocalyptic tale box-office bite. While the novel won praise in the literary ring including the Oregon Book Award, principal photography began on Fight Club.

Palahniuk gave up his mechanic’s job to write his second novel Survivor, complete with another death-obsessed protagonist who relates his life story moments before his jet crashes into the side of a mountain. Last month, his third novel Invisible Monsters was published. With this trademark sicko saga about a deformed supermodel, her uber-egoist pal Brandy Alexander, and boyfriend Alfa Romeo as they road-trip across the country posing as home buyers and stealing prescription medicine from houses for sale, Palahniuk proved he wasn’t budging from the enviable throne of poor writer turned celebrity author. But despite what might have been distracting Hollywood hoopla, Invisible Monsters was as thrilling and dark as his past stories. It starts, as do all Palahniuk tales, with the end of the book first — three whiny prima donnas bleeding to death in a flaming, gun-powdered plantation home, each bitching about their flattened hair and ruined dresses.

“I’m amazed by the stupid things people say and do under stress,” he says.

Fight Club’s insomniac narrator will do anything to sleep. He attends support groups under false pretenses, as a “faker,” to achieve social belonging and the comfort that he isn’t as sick as those he meets at a melanoma roundtable, Firm Believers leukemia rap group, Above and Beyond brain parasites group, and Remaining Men Together — a bawling bunch of guys who give each other bear hugs and cry freely. The narrator’s doctor says that if he wants to see some real pain, “swing by First Eucharist on a Tuesday night. See the brain parasites. See the degenerative bone diseases. The organic brain dysfunctions. See the cancer patients getting by. There were introductions: This is Alice. This is Brenda. This is Dover. Everyone smiles with that invisible gun to their heads.”

Palahniuk spent time volunteering in hospices before writing Fight Club and is now working part-time with Alzheimer’s patients.

“We really live in a culture defined on binary basis. Black is black only because there is white. There’s goodness because there is badness,” he says. “So much of our culture denies death, mutilation, sickness. You have to recognize the things you’re afraid of before you can really appreciate the joyful things of life. I watched a lot of young people — 23, 24 — die. I always said, ‘I’ll write a book before I’m 65.’ Then I thought, ‘What if I don’t make it to 65?’ It’s really all about the presence of life when you suddenly realize it’s ending.”

Even though Palahniuk will likely be the toast of Fight Club’s premiere in Los Angeles this week, he doesn’t have any plans to flaunt his celebrity. He’s content with raising chickens in Oregon and living near his “entirely normal” family.

“I can’t imagine getting a book out of hanging out with celebrities,” he says. “I’m happy where I am right now. There’s a certain peace, a calm, that I feel right now. But I’m always up for the bizarre story or experience.”

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