"And for those of you with cell phones, please don't call the fire marshal." What has become a cliched but sadly necessary announcement about telecom etiquette at public gatherings was given this new twist by Gloria Borg Olds at Broadway Books on May 29, as the small bookshop she co-owns with Roberta Dyer was mobbed by fans of Portland's Lit icon, Chuck Palahniuk.
Though the shop was still within fire-code capacity, there were at least 100 people crowding the pavement out front, dying to get a glance at Palahniuk while he gave the first hometown reading from his new novel, Choke. Of the lucky crew who found display cases to perch on inside, most were twentyish young men, many looking like spruced-up extras from Fight Club. But these weren't style slaves or fame whores, as the inevitable Q&A after the reading proved. In the main, these fans were serious Palahniuk scholars given to Talmudic trawls of the texts to suss out coded meanings and themes.
Many in the audience found a leitmotiv of transcendence in Palahniuk's work; within that, some further discerned a distinctly Buddhistic strain. Palahniuk seemed content to allow any interpretation that reared its head, whether out of politeness (he is, perhaps, the city's last gentleman) or out of a desire to perpetuate the corona of mystery that rings his work.
After taking the shop's podium, Palahniuk drew attention to the fact that his last reading at Broadway Books had been some years ago in the company of his fellow writers from Tom Spanbauer's group. Back then, he read to a clutch of friends and family. Back then, Fight Club was a mere option in a producer's "in" basket. But success hasn't spoiled Palahniuk. "I'll stay until the last book is signed and the last hand is shook," he told his fans. Considering the press of flesh in front of him, Broadway Books probably had to extend their hours that night.
Palahniuk dove into Chapter 2 of Choke, wherein his protagonist, Victor Mancini, takes stock of a sex addict's recovery meeting. Here the resident self-helpless form a roll call of every sexual loser and autoerotic accident victim known to joke: the bric-a-brac-crammed orifices, the walking gerbil graves and the knee-sore cheerleaders suffering a touch of Rod Stewart's complaint. They are all present, though Mancini has briefly excused himself to gallantly escort a day-release nympho to the ladies'.
From the cold tiles of a toilet floor, Palahniuk skipped a few chapters to land Mancini in one of his favorite settings: a restaurant, site of the book's title. Actually, it would be interesting to know how many of his readers still dine out regularly, considering the various risks in which Palahniuk has reveled (probably best not to know how many of his acolytes are actual food handlers). Yet with Mancini, Palahniuk has created another antihero that demands attention.
With sheaves of glowing reviews coming in for Choke, it's clear that Borg Olds and Dyer are going to have to invest in larger digs for the next Palahniuk reading at Broadway.
By Chuck Palahniuk
(Doubleday, 256 pages, $24.95)
Palahniuk reads at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, on Tuesday, May 29.