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The riled ones

Rant An Oral Biography of Buster Casey Chuck Palahniuk Doubleday: 322 pp., $24.95

April 22, 2007|Steve Almond | Steve Almond is the author of the forthcoming essay collection "(Not That You Asked)."

CHUCK PALAHNIUK'S eighth novel is frantic, inventive, sporadically insightful and frequently sickening. His fans will love it; those of you who are not part of the Chuckgeist may find "Rant" tough to savor. Composed as an "oral biography," the book assembles hundreds of brief testimonials to document the rise and fall of a peculiar young man named Buster "Rant" Casey. Rant is a small-town rebel addicted to animal poison, who moves to the big city, triggers a rabies epidemic, joins a nocturnal cult dedicated to car wrecks, dies in a fiery crash, is resurrected and travels back in time to save his mother from conceiving him via rape committed by an immortal sociopath. You know, that old template.

True, the construction of a plausible (or coherent) plot has never stood in the way of a Palahniuk production. Nor has the wearying task of character development. He writes in a firmly adolescent mode, with an emphasis on homoerotic alienation, mayhem and bodily fluids. In calmer moments, he also manages a sly wisdom. ("Any lone weirdo comes from a big nest of weirdos. What's weird is, you go to some pigsty village in Slovakia, and suddenly even Andy Warhol makes perfect sense.") Or there's this aside on a teenager with rabies: "The symptoms are brooding and antisocial behavior, isolation alternating with fits of hostile aggression. If the CDC treated every teenager that showed those symptoms ... well, no government has that much money."

Mostly, though, the author engages in the pursuit of stomach-turning details. We get extended riffs on venereal disease, genital odor, used feminine products, boogers and so on. This is known in political circles as appealing to the base. He's much more compelling when he resists the easy jolt of gross-out humor. Still, it's probably overstating the case to call "Rant" a novel of ideas. It's closer to a novel of notions, facile ones for the most part but often delivered with a welcome tenderness. "Walking out with Rant Casey, time had a habit of getting stopped," one friend recalls of their midnight rambles. "Those stars, the same old hand-me-down stars as folks still wish on now." Another pal notes wistfully, "Maybe people don't travel back in time. Maybe it's lies like that, anything that smells better than the idea of death -- black, inky, forever death -- it's those kind of sexy lies that set up world religions."

The book's central notion is the human need to aggrandize one's history and create a personality cult, concerns Palahniuk comes by naturally. He's also interested in how technology and extremism reshape our world. He's created an urban dystopia in which half the citizens work at night, as an oppressed underclass. Traditional entertainments have been replaced by implants that "boost" experiences straight into one's nervous system. And the government, in response to the rabies outbreak, has turned proto-fascist. Palahniuk has a ball with such sci-fi flourishes and with his sprawling cast of narrators. (He shifts from bumpkins to starchy academics to sputtering conspiracy-mongers, often on a single page.) His targets are never much in doubt: the tyranny of the rich, screen addiction and governments that ignore due process -- evils relevant to our present circumstances.

The guy clearly has the imagination and linguistic virtuosity required to transport us into his outlandish worlds; that alone marks him as a major talent. But "Rant" also isolates Palahniuk's glaring novelistic flaw: his need to entertain at the expense of moral or emotional concerns. He'd rather show us his characters' mutilated innards than their internal lives. He'd rather fire buckshot at boogeymen than explore how we betray our consciences. He'd rather please the masses than challenge them.

Because of his, er, rabid following among disaffected youth and his knack for social satire, Palahniuk is often compared to Kurt Vonnegut. But Vonnegut never relied on grisly injuries or potty humor to seduce his audience. He was genuinely heartbroken at the state of modern man and the atrocities we commit and tolerate. His contempt for authority never seemed a pose. I can't say the same of Palahniuk. He's expert at eliciting the easy emotions of our age -- grievance, envy and rage -- but has little interest in the difficult ones: shame, fear or love. The result is books like "Rant," chaotic joyrides that glance in interesting directions before skidding off to the next thrill. Nor did Vonnegut ever traffic in the juvenile myth that masochistic violence offers a path to spiritual liberation (a line Palahniuk has been pushing since his debut, "Fight Club").

In "Rant," we hear about the priapic pleasures of spider bites and the communal joys of causing car wrecks and "Party Crashing." As one wayward youth notes: "Haven't oppressed people always gone to church for comfort? ... Haven't all your major revolutions brewed as people complained together and sang songs and got riled up to take violent action? Wasn't Party Crashing our church ... ?" This, I guess, is the Palahniuk call to arms. Gentlemen, start your engines! Or maybe it's an unintended critique of his constituents. After all, the prime impulse in his brave new world is a tendency to revel in the gruesome tragedy of others. He calls it "the Rubberneck Effect." Precisely.

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