Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon
by Chuck Palahniuk
A review by C. P. Farley
Portland likes to think of itself as one of the nation's best kept secrets, an oasis of sensible planning, friendly people, quiet neighborhoods, and natural beauty. Not as spoiled as Seattle, not as pretentious as San Francisco, Portland just may be the most livable city on the West Coast. To those who call Portland a modest city, with much to be modest about, Portlanders just flash a good-I-guess-you-won't-be-moving-here smile and head for the dog park in their Subaru Outback.
If this sort of smug self-regard isn't your cup of organic herb tea, pick up a copy of Chuck Palahniuk's just-released guidebook to Portland. Palahniuk's Portland is eccentric, dysfunctional, and perverse — anything but smug. Not your typical hotel-gift-shop guidebook, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon makes no pretense at objectivity. This is a decidedly idiosyncratic and personal book. I think that's the idea.
Fugitives and Refugees is one of the first volumes in the new Crown Journeys series, in which well known authors write about their favorite places. While Michael Cunningham opens his book about Provincetown with a lyrical description of boats and sunsets — "They become briefly phosphorescent in a dim blue world" — Palahhiuk sets the stage for his tour of Portland by recounting a conversation with Katherine Dunn, author of the cult classic Geek Love and patron saint of oddballs everywhere.
"Katherine's theory is 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 us the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among misfits."
Okay, it's been a few years since Portland could be called cheap. Still, Palahniuk makes a convincing case that Portland has more than its share of kooks. If you're already a fan, you won't need to be told that that's a good thing. If you're new to Palahniuk's work, this book just may win you over.
Unless, of course, you're averse to hookers, addicts, bathhouses, feral cats, kinkfests, drag queens, crypts, puking anarchists, delinquent Santas, or men with hairy backs.
Unlike other books on the region, Palahniuk doesn't dwell on magnificent hiking trails or world-class wines. Instead, he points out that "to FBI experts who profile serial killers, the Pacific Northwest is 'America's Killing Fields,' because the people are so friendly and trusting. The wilderness is always nearby. It rains, and things rot fast." There's no mention — thank God — in Fugitives and Refugees of Portland's famous Rose Garden, though readers will learn how Rocky Horror virgins are deflowered at the Clinton Street Theater. And, he only brings up the city's famous bookstore (of course I mean Powell's) to tell readers about its resident ghost, and the human remains that were entombed in its pillar of books. If you aren't drawn to rotten apples and black sheep, this isn't the book for you.
Then again, Fugitives and Refugees is more than a book about the weird people and dark corners of Portland. Tucked surreptitiously between chapters are eleven "postcards," which, cobbled together, make up a sort of memoir of Palahniuk's years in his adopted city. Told in Palahniuk's signature voice — a blend of nihilism, pathos, and biting wit — these stories make the book. Most readers will never drive out to Newberg to the self-cleaning house, or get groped in the Shanghai tunnels. But any reader with an ear for a well-turned anecdote will appreciate these dark, funny, poignant stories of life on the fringe. A few may even discover that the world outside their Outback windows is a bit more fascinating, and less predicatable, than they'd realized.