The Short Version: A town like Portland, Oregon is the sort of town you’d expect Chuck Palahniuk to live in. So it’s no surprise that he would be the one to put together an off-beat travel guide of sorts, as part of the Crown Journeys series. It’s a time capsule of sorts but also a way to see a different side of a very weird city.
The Review: A couple of weeks ago, I took a proper vacation for the first time in years – actually, in many ways, my first real grownup vacation (i.e. not with my family, not to a wedding, not during college) – and the first stop was Portland. I’d never been to the West Coast (and, yes, there’s still a lot of West Coast to see. I KNOW, I need to visit Seattle and all of California and so on. I’m working on it.) and lots of friends told me amazing things about the city, whether they’d just visited or lived there. So Dani and I flew out and spent two and a half days (give or take) wandering around. Our first stop, pretty much, was Powell’s – where I picked up a book that I’d always been curious about but never really seen the reason to read before: Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees. And while the Portland he describes has shifted and changed a bit, there are things in here that give me a reason to go back and try to find – a whole mess of things, in fact.
The book is part travel guide, part memoir – maybe the closest thing we’ll ever get to a memoir from Chuck, in fact. The travel guide sections are several pages long, usually including an expanded list of 5-15 sites to see: haunted locales, shopping tips, nature spots, and even tips on where to get laid in the chapter entitled “How to Knock Off a Piece in Portland”. Most recs get a paragraph, often with contact information or a website to find more, but a few get several pages of detailed backstory. These are, without fail, tremendously interesting and the book, overall, benefits from Palahniuk’s unadorned and poppy prose. Even places that I wouldn’t otherwise be interested in seeing (which include but are not limited to the gay nightlife spots, the SantaCon stuff, the Self-Cleaning House, and some of the food spots) sound, well, interesting.
But the best part of the book is that memoir bit. Chuck intersperses his recommendations with “postcards” – short essays (1-3 pages long) that take us from 1981 to 2002, or when he arrived in Portland to when the book was published. These all tell a little anecdote about Palahniuk’s time in Portland – hanging out with Katherine Dunn (who wrote Geek Love across the street from where we stayed, according to the map in this book), being an extra in a movie, nearly getting busted by the cops, getting beat up, and so on. And while they are all wonderful, it is the last of these postcards that makes the entire book worth reading (or at least flipping through) even if you aren’t going to Portland. It’s not just for the Palahniuk completists, I promise.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I’ve read enough interviews with Palahniuk and seen him enough times now to know one refrain of his perfectly: he wants to capture moments. That’s his driving force, as a writer: to capture a moment for posterity. Maybe it’s a perfect sentence, maybe it’s a place he loves, maybe it’s a person he knows or an anecdote they told. And that’s what he does here, in an unadorned and beautiful way. Yes, this is a travel guide – but it’s also a reflection on a time and a place and a man. Portland has changed a whole lot in the 10+ years since this book came out and I’ll bet it’ll change more before I go back again… but it gave us the man who wrote all these wacky books. This was his chance to give a little something back.