by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday, $24.95)
Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600; 7:30 p.m. Tues., May 22
University Book Store, 4326 University Way, N.E., 634-3400; 7 p.m. Wed., May 23
SEX ADDICT Victor Mancini still hasn't taken the fourth step. The protagonist of Portland author Chuck Palahniuk's fourth novel tells us that in most 12-step recovery programs, "the fourth step makes you take inventory of your life. Every lame, suck-ass moment of your life, you have to get a notebook and write it down. . . . That way, every sin is right at your fingertips. Then you have to fix it all."
Victor's life could use a little fixing. He dropped out of medical school to land in a sexaholic support group, which supplies him with conveniently lascivious ladies. He works at an 18th-century historical theme park, where he takes frequent breaks from pretending that he's an indentured Irish servant to shoot the shit with his masturbation-addicted pal Denny and sneak inside barns so the horny milkmaid can yank his teat. Afternoons, he visits St. Anthony's hospital, where his mother—who, because of Alzheimer's, doesn't even recognize him—nears death and where he talks nurses into doing the nasty with him. He stuffs his mouth full of steak when he eats out, preparing for that crucial moment when he'll clutch his throat, causing other patrons to run to his rescue.
Palahniuk has managed to write a surprisingly likeable antihero in Choke. Like Fight Club's Tyler Durden, Victor is a man's man nursing a wounded ego. He complains, "Women are always bossing me around. . . . They're all just in it for themselves. They all think men are obsolete. Useless. As if we're just some sexual appendix." Reacting to his inconsequentiality, Victor puffs himself up to Christlike proportions by making people need his help. He gags on his food in public places to enable ordinary diners to become heroes, and he argues against euthanasia for his mother because "Even if it means keeping her crippled, I want to be someone's constant savior."
But Victor's also a conflicted martyr; he reaches out with the hope that he'll be saved in return. He keeps his mother alive because he fears the personal responsibility that orphanhood entails. And he needs nurturing, which he reveals while discussing the fruits of his choking routine: "It's as if now you're their child. For the rest of their lives, these people will write me. . . . They call you on the phone. To see if you maybe need cheering up. Or cash."
CASH? Forked over by the unassuming diner to the man she just saved from choking to death? This isn't the only time Palahniuk causes our suspension of disbelief to fall.
Victor insists that the restaurant-goers who've given him the Heimlich pay the majority of his mother's monthly $3,000 hospital bill. He explains, "To increase cash flow, you have to create two or three heroes every night. Some nights you have to hit three or four places before you've had a full meal."
While parts of Choke's plot lack plausibility, the novel's characters could use a touch of compassion. Almost everyone's a fuck-up on the Palahniukian plane of existence, from the theme park's Special K-taking stableboy to the Japanese sun bear at the zoo that "tossed its little mess on the rocks." A gritty backdrop can add depth to a novel, but grit-infected characters can also become part of the backdrop. Such is the case with Victor's mother. When she's not a vegetable, unloving and immobile in her hospital bed, she's a nut, stealing school buses and spewing absurdities at her son.
Readers who were fond of Tyler's rant against his Swedish furniture in Fight Club will be pleased to find similar diatribes throughout Choke. Palahniuk is a master of the impassioned microessay, and Victor a wry expert on everything from American consumerism to the female ear: "If women knew how their ears come across, the firm fleshy edge, the little dark hood at the top, all the smooth contours coiled and channeling you to the tight darkness inside, well, more women would wear their hair down." Chances are Palahniuk won't release a book of nonfiction any time soon, so for now we'll have to forgive the pockmarked plot and acidic characters. Choke may be hard to swallow, but at least we can feel it trying to go down.