Katherine Dunn's Greatest Hits In Willamette Week

Some of you may have forgotten. Some of you never knew. But Katherine Dunn [the subject of this week's cover story] wrote for Willamette Week for nearly a decade starting in 1981. "All during the time I was working on the Geek," Dunn tells WW, "I was supported by my work at WW, and I learned a lot about writing by working there."

It was her first newspaper work. "I'd never written anything but fiction before," she says, "but I decided the local boxing scene wasn't getting decent coverage from the daily papers. I walked into the WW office downtown and talked to then-managing editor Peter Sistrom and proposed to write fight stuff for him."

"The Road Runner Gets Ready. Beep! Beep!," which covered the excitement surrounding local middleweight contender Mike Colbert, was published Jan. 19, 1981. It was the first of hundreds of pieces Dunn wrote for WW, on everything from Sugar Ray Leonard to those "Do Not Remove" tags on pillows.

Here, we describe some of her most memorable moments in our pages. .

"Keeping the 'Gators Fed," Nov. 24, 1981

This was Dunn's first article about literature—and it's a rousing appreciation of Stephen King and his then-new book, Cujo. "Love, as King perceives it, is the most destructive force in the universe," Dunn wrote. She also described King's gift for identifying the evil "lurking everywhere, waiting for a crack that allows it to break into reality." She was a very early voice regarding King as more than a pulp figure.

"The Unhappy Warrior," June 22, 1982

Covering the world heavyweight title bout between Gerry Cooney and Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, Dunn addressed this piece to "dear fat-headed America, the dreamer," stumping forever for boxing's Great White Hope—in this case Cooney. "It seemed to me that most coverage was skirting the central issue of race," Dunn says now. In the piece, she gently ribbed the fans hoping for a miracle—the "depressed and deflated white America" hoping for a sign that they still mattered. "But the gods must love America," she wrote of Cooney's defeat, and Holmes' tear-stained triumph over the white fans who bet against him. "They didn't give us what we wanted, they gave us what we needed."


"Behind Bars," Jan. 25, 1983

Dunn wasn't the writer on this one. She was a subject—a bartender interviewed about her experience at the Earth, a one-time rough-and-tumble bar on Northwest 21st Avenue. "Men are cowed by female authority in a barroom environment," Dunn said at the time. This authority apparently didn't extend to women. "I was once cold-cocked by this little vixen," said Dunn, "just because I informed her it was closing time." Dunn also mentioned, in passing, that she almost had her throat slit by a biker, but that apparently wasn't the point of the story.


"The Vices and Virtue of Boxing," April 5, 1983

On Nov. 17, 1982, a little-known South Korean boxer named Duk Koo Kim died following a lightweight bout against Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, stirring a national debate about the safety of the sport. WW asked a doctor to write about the damage boxing inflicts on fighters. Dunn wrote a counterpoint about the sport's virtues—arguing, in part, that rough sports help maintain the delicate balance between softness and aggression that are essential to our survival as a species. "It's a piece and a topic that took me through some heavy thinking and some serious research," Dunn says. "The conclusions I reached are still useful to me today." The piece is reprinted in Dunn's 2009 collection of boxing journalism, One Ring Circus.


"The Slice" column, Aug. 27, 1984-May 31, 1990

For almost six years, Dunn wrote a weekly column answering reader questions half seriously, half digressively. These were collected in a book in 1990. One particular favorite? A piece that reminds us that even in its darker days in the '80s, Portland was always Portland, the sort of place to be plagued by a religious graffitist. "Portland is such a lovable burg," she wrote in June 1985. "Tacoma has the Green River guy, Boston has its strangler, Chicago has politicians, San Diego has the McMassacre, and Portland has the 'Trust Jesus' Graffitist." May it ever be so. Dunn kept writing the column following the publication of Geek Love, but on May 31, 1990, she announced a one-year sabbatical.

She did not end up returning to the column, but for two years WW kept her name in the masthead, finally cutting it on May 14, 1992. Dunn currently lives in Portland and New York, and is newly married. She is at work on a boxing novel entitled The Cut Man, which for 25 years has been one of the most feverishly anticipated novels in literature. She will not talk about its contents to a newspaper, including WW.

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