Spreading rabies and an odd sort of wisdom
Once upon a time, a friend gave me a copy of the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.
This friend and I were very into punk and wanted all the details: the first time Iggy Pop got onstage and rolled around shirtless in broken glass, a Who’s Who of the social outcasts who turned CBGB from a moldering barroom to the epicenter of a new underground culture.
We got those details, delivered in direct quotations from people who were there. The entire book is constructed in quotation after quotation without a single footnote or line of prose. It’s amazing—it reads like a novel.
Chuck Palahniuk’s new book is a novel, of course, but it’s amazing—it’s written like an oral history, with a complicated matrix of characters and events.
This is the life story of the legendary Buster “Rant” Casey, told by those who knew him in their own words—and let me tell you, it’s more disturbing than anything I remember the Dead Boys doing.
Rant was born to a loving young mother and a brutal father in some backwater called Middleton, which is characterized by “ratty sofas abandoned on porches.”
Early on we learn that Rant became “the worst Patient Zero in the history of disease” and “a kind of naturopathic serial killer” responsible for a rabies epidemic he started on purpose.
You see, as a teenager Rant takes to sticking his arm down deep into animal holes, groping for fur and hoping to get bitten. This is his idea of a good time, and the fact that he gets bitten dozens upon dozens of times inoculates him so that when he contracts rabies, it doesn’t kill him, and he goes around spreading it. Rant, it seems, is popular with the girls.
In telling this utterly bizarre tale, a story that only gets heavier as it goes on, Rant’s friends and family give their recollections of the twisted things he did as a kid and young adult before his violent death, stories as improbable as the all-American tall tale, only really gross.
Gross, but fiercely smart, and in Palahniuk’s signature way of raging against the deadening sterility of modern life. Once Rant leaves Middleton for “the city,” already infected with rabies, he gets involved with the Party Crashers. Bored with life and looking to meet people (!), the Crashers play bumper cars with their real cars, smashing into each other in an elaborate game that’s part prank, part performance art, part bonding ritual. Sometimes the players even dress up and pretend to be part of wedding parties: Picture both men and women dressed as brides “throwing white rice to hurt.”
Palahniuk excels at this kind of black humor, and it permeates the novel. Some of the jokes are delicious, Six Feet Under-esque moments in which any topic is fair game, even monitoring the car radio for songs to die to. “If your car skids into oncoming traffic, and you die listening to the Archies sing ‘Sugar Sugar,’ it’s your own damn laziness.”
But the point of Party Crashing is certainly not to die, but to feel more alive, a theme that won’t surprise readers familiar with Palahniuk’s work. Says one crasher: “Isn’t it like a gift, somebody slamming you? Don’t you get out of the car all shaky and shocked? Like you’re a baby getting born?”
Through the words of Rant’s more thinky friends, Palahniuk makes social commentary on topics from disease epidemic conspiracy theories, which I found fascinating, to the emptiness of ritual in modern society, which felt like more of a retread. On a Halloween party: “Eating cake flavored with artificial vanilla. Celebrating a harvest that didn’t occur anymore. Fruit punch that came from a factory. ...”
OK, we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
We get it.
Luckily, Palahniuk pushes his insights further than this, conferring a sense of amazement at the utter weirdness of the world we live in. That, and a Zen-like acceptance (enjoyment?) of the violence inherent to human nature. But what seems to be his foregone conclusion—that we all rubberneck, are all voyeurs of the twisted car wrecks on the highway of life—makes parts of the book a bit stomach-flipping to those of us who don’t take quite as much pleasure in that idea.
But! Despite all the horror-story horribleness—descriptions of the way disease ruins the body, sinister images of pet dogs turning on their owners or of black widow spiders lurking in piles of unused clothing—this novel is, improbable as it sounds, shot through with a stirring feeling of hopefulness.
“We won’t never be as young as we is tonight,” one friend quotes Rant as saying. It’s just one of the killer’s many uplifting sentiments.
No, really. He’s a life-loving guy. It’s the world around him that’s spooky, we discover, as the novel tumbles down a rabbit hole of time travel and futuristic (though not hard to imagine) governments that get their kicks by watching people suffer. It’s a rare novel that’s as funny and as brain-bending as this one. Buckle up.