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A Knock Out

''Fight Club'' author on why he's never attended one. And what Chuck Palahniuk's fans really want to know about the enigmatic creator of Tyler Durden

Chuck Palahniuk | JOIN THE 'CLUB' Palahniuk's first novel was one of those rare books that fans actually fought over
Image credit: Chuck Palahniuk Photograph by Robbie McClaran
JOIN THE 'CLUB' Palahniuk's first novel was one of those rare books that fans actually fought over

Once again, Chuck Palahniuk is seducing audiences with a tale of blood and guts. And the author of ''Fight Club,'' the bruiser anthem behind the cult movie, is beat up something good this time, his assailant a crystallized mass of evil burrowed deep within his whimpering bladder. ''I go to take a leak and, oh my God, I'm bleeding to death,'' he tells a Portland bookstore crowd of 200-plus. ''It's like 'Carrie.' And I've got another kidney stone. Right now I'm on half a Vicodin. So go ahead: Hit me.''

And the crowd goes wild. Palahniuk (pronounced Paula-nick) is making a three-night promotional swing through local bookstores to promote his hometown travel guide ''Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon,'' and details of his bladder infection kill. His fans -- many of whom are young men, unemployed, or making do on minimum wage, tattooed and pierced, with black Sharpie pen on their nails and cut-off Dickies and red laces through their Chuck Taylors -- lap up his stories, so thrilled are they to be in their hero's presence. See, they didn't really read before. Maybe some Marvel comics or fantasy novels, maybe some Bret Easton Ellis. But they saw this movie ''Fight Club'' and something took hold and suddenly they're buying hardcovers and standing in line for three hours to meet a writer.

Dallas Webb, a 22-year-old struggling with borderline personality disorder, made the two-hour drive from Salem, Wash., to get his books signed by the master. Their exchange is clean and cordial and now Webb needs to sit down. ''This is a HUGE deal for me,'' he says shakily, embarrassed by his cotton mouth and trembling pierced lower lip. ''He's been the big influence on my life for the last couple years. I don't know, he's helped me a lot...the whole philosophy behind the movie. It wasn't just about violence, it was about how you can feel so alone in life and so abandoned and rejected by everything that you have to resort to violence to feel real.'' Like other hardcore fans, Webb flirted in the past with back-alley fight clubs. (One British kid wrote Palahniuk to say he'd officially changed his name to Brad Pitt's character, Tyler Durden.) And like others, Webb has self-mutilated in homage to ''Fight Club'''s infamous lye scene. To pay the evening its proper due, he'd poured superglue on his right hand and a buddy sprayed it with accelerant. His resulting chemical burn, a cracked, pink mess, is a source of pride. ''This makes me feel like I'm connecting with what I love. I have passion.''

Such earnest fanaticism propels Palahniuk's subversive novels, like ''Choke and Lullaby'' and the latest, a conspiracy horror story called ''Diary,'' onto the best-seller list. And at readings Palahniuk knows how to milk the love. He bought 45 masks of the WWE character the Undertaker at the dollar store and throws them out to the crowd, promising that ''these masks are excellent for sex!'' He signs everyone's books (''To Drew -- the best cellmate ever!'') and stamps the pages with ''Property of Oswald Men's Federal Penitentiary'' or ''Property of Dr. B. Alexander Sex Reassignment Clinic.'' He gives the crowd what they want -- and they want outrageous stories about acting up and getting loaded. They want to know when the next Palahniuk novel will bust its way onto the big screen. They want his personal e-mail address. They want to hear about his famous friends, like Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson. Palahniuk loves to talk about Manson -- Manson this, Manson that -- and his painted-on shtick. ''It's almost like watching somebody do drag,'' he says. ''Because when he's up there doing his big nihilistic thing, it feels funny to watch him. Because I see it as this very put-on costume and persona.''

Chuck Palahniuk, 41, hasn't been in a fight since 1995. ''When I first used to tour,'' he says, ''guys would come up and say, 'Where's the fight club in my area?' and I would say, 'There isn't one.' And they'd say, 'No, no, you can tell me, you can tell me.' Or they would come and they would say, 'Is there one of these for women?' And I'd be like, 'There isn't one of these for men. I made it up.' And it breaks their hearts, it breaks people's hearts.''

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