Fugitives and Refugees, Chuck Palahniuk

Crown, 2003, 176 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-4000-4783-8

If you’re not a fan of Chuck Palahniuk and you’re not in any hurry to learn more about Portland, this is going to be a very short review: Don’t bother with this book. It’s written by Palahniuk for Palahniuk fans, with an appropriate look at the city of Portland and the weirdness contained within. No, it’s not an accident if you haven’t seen Fugitives and Refugees in bookstores and may never even have heard about it. Please skip the rest of this review. We’ll see each other at the next one

As for the rest of you, I can only assume that you want to learn more about Portland and/or are already die-hard fans of Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction from Fight Club to Diary. If you have already read his non-fiction collection Stranger Than Fiction, you’re already halfway ready to have a look at Fugitives and Refugees.

Part of the “Crown Journeys” collection, this is, obviously, a look at the city of Portland. But unlike a typical travel guide (and much like a typical Palahniuk book), it focuses on the weird, the cool, the unusual and the perverted. Portland high quotient of quirkiness, explains Palahniuk though an interview with Geek Love‘s author Katherine Dunn, can be attributed to the theory that “everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the cheapest city where they can live is Portland. This gives [the city] the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among misfits.” [P.14] The fugitives and refugees of the entire country, one could say.

And so Palahniuk takes stock of his chosen city and reports back from the field. Half of Fugitives and Refugees is built like a typical travel guide; here’s a chapter on restaurants (complete with recipes, to the grand pleasure of all Palahniuk-naggers who maintain that his fans would buy even The Man’s grocery lists); here’s a chapter on shopping; another on museums. But then the book gets weirder: There’s an explicit chapter on the city’s sex trade; another on the haunted buildings of Portland; a third one on the underground tunnels under the city…

Palahniuk has done his legwork in tracking down the fugitives and refugees of his city. His guide to the city’s landmarks is augmented by mini-interviews with zoo keepers, milling experts, fancy carmakers, drag queens, museum owners and the inventor of a self-cleaning house. Fascinating stuff, regardless of whether you intend to visit Portland or not. It’s in this section of the book that you can perhaps most clearly see similarities with Palahniuk’s other non-fiction collection Stranger than Fiction.

But much as Stranger than Fiction also found some of its best moments in self-reflective pieces about Palahniuk’s life, every chapter of Fugitives and Refugees is interspersed with “Postcards” from the author’s personal history, from his starring role in a MTV video to his participation in Portland’s SantaCon’96. Palahniuk’s fans will be delighted and fascinated by another peek at the author’s life, but even regular readers are likley to consider these pieces as the book’s highlights. I’m still laughing myself silly about his description of an LSD trip inside a planetarium, and I’m fascinated by his description of the “Portland’s semiannual Apocalypse Café”, a potluck held in a condemned industrial building, as if it was in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society. Very Fight Clubish indeed.

Palahniuk’s fiction is less distinguishable by its overall plot than its shocking vignettes and affectionately described oddball characters. This holds true with Fugitive and Refugees: while this won’t leap on top of anyone’s reading list based on the sole distinction of having been written by Palahniuk, it makes for an interesting (and fast) read for his fans. They will find everything they like about the author’s fiction on full display here, along with a number of tasty anecdotes from his life. What remains to be established for non-Portlanders is the ratio of impression-to-reality: From Fugitives and Refugees, we get the impression that Portland is a city teething with repressed craziness, but is it truly as special, as weird and as off-the-wall as Palahniuk says? Heck, it almost sounds as if a visit is in order to find out…

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