Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., April 13, 2007
Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 288 pp., $24.95What do you do if you've invented a character who embodies the violent rejection of modern society, an incandescent rebel whose very existence is an assault on the pussification of the American male, and that character becomes more popular in large part due to his portrayal by Brad Pitt on the big screen than you ever dreamed he would? If you're the writer Chuck Palahniuk, you might try to invent, later in your career, a new iteration along the lines of Tyler Durden. Especially since, popularity be damned, Durden's the sort of guy you've always liked to write about and is so handy in promoting the societal critiques you want to share with the world (or, at least, your famously rabid fan base).
Palahniuk's latest, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, serves up a title character who shatters the same-old-same-old of his small Midwestern town almost before he's left the womb. Buster "Rant" Casey grows up spending much of his time with one arm or the other down holes belonging to whatever critters live below rattlesnake, gopher, coyote in order to feel like he's truly alive. In order, also, to contract and intensify a strain of rabies that will, much later, become a world-changing epidemic. Along the way, he commits a few murders, several lesser felonies, and much sexual conquesting before ditching his familiar Podunk for the Big Apple. In New York, he gets involved with an underground society of thrill-seekers who continually wreck their cars in a sort of "10th Victim"-on-wheels scenario. And the population is increasingly divided, by law, into Nighttime people and Daytime people. And sensory experience is recorded and sold like so many DVDs. And Rant's story gets even wilder. And this is all good and presented via the transcribed voices of many different characters, as if Studs Terkel were behind this project, and so everyone in the story is an unreliable narrator. Said unreliability is supposed to ease our swallowing of the sci-fi fantasy that this urban myth eventually spirals into.
It's unfortunate that Palahniuk chooses to spike his compelling mix of two-fisted tales of near-future eccentrics with what amounts to an inelegant hack of Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies." It's disappointing to have to suspend disbelief of time-twisting autogenesis (or its possibility), to be soaked in warmed-over genre tropes, when the gritty albeit freakish realism that preceded it was what kept the pages turning. Stephen King, say, might require vampires, parallel dimensions, and such to redeem the bulk of his stories; Palahniuk probably doesn't. Here's hoping that, in the future, he leaves them and their ilk to people who need them more.