It seemed like a good idea: Naughty nihilist and literary man-about-town Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, writes a guide to underground Portland, full of secret niches you'd never find in Fodor's or Let's Go. The dust jacket of Fugitives and Refugees promises "an adventure through the parts of Portland you might not otherwise believe actually exist." Well, you know what they say about books and their covers.
The premise of Fugitives and Refugees is inspired. Working under Geek Love author Katherine Dunn's contention that our fair city is a mecca for freaks, oddballs and eccentrics, plus her theory that everyone in Portland lives at least three lives * they're a writer-musician-deli worker, for example, or a bartender-mechanic-photographer * Palahniuk sketches his plan: "What follows," he writes in the introduction, "is a little history, a little legend, and a lot of friendly, sincere, fascinating people who maybe should've kept their mouths shut."
Unfortunately, it seems he ran out of time to finish that book, because instead of musings on the three lives of various haunts and fringe-dwellers and how they intersect, we get lists: Places to eat. Places to shop. Landmarks. Funky museums. Gardens to visit. Sure, there's also a rundown of the city's sex industry, complete with listings for the Ace of Hearts swingers club, Zippers Down and the obligatory Teresa Dulce interview. There's also a disproportionately thorough (though entertaining) chapter on the zoo. But for the most part, this is merely an alternative travel guide.
Portland is a notoriously small town culturally, with two degrees of separation being the norm. You'd think someone who's lived here since 1980 would be able to pull together a pretty fascinating picture of the tightly woven fabric that forms the city's cultural life. Especially someone who is a Someone. But Palahniuk writes like a tourist who's never been here and doesn't know anyone who has.
He sets up the Dunnian three-lives premise, then drops it. In one of many examples, he mentions the performance group House of Cunt, then later separately lists the restaurant Wild Abandon, which used to be a former massage parlor/"jack shack." But he never mentions that half the restaurant's staff are House of Cunt members, and it's not as if he didn't know. But the structure of the book--a collage of impressions in no context--seems to prevent him from drawing the connections that anyone who's lived in Portland for any length of time simply knows are lurking just under the surface.
Besides the poor editing (a knife at Movie Madness stabbed Janet Leigh in Psycho, not Vera Miles), the book is doubly disappointing because it contains glimpses of what it could've been. Linking the chapters are a dozen "postcards," anecdotes from various moments in Palahniuk's life here: his first time on acid, when he munches the sleeve of a woman's fur coat while watching the OMSI Laser Pink Floyd show; his role as boytoy in an MTV music video filmed in Corno's meat locker. These snippets compose the kind of personal history of Portland the town deserves. If only the rest of the book had lived up to it.