The waiter at the café—a cute, young aspiring writer with face fuzz and a military-surplus cap—stammers with recognition. Square-jawed, buttoned-down Chuck Palahniuk, kicking off a tour for his new book, Tell-All, chats with him smilingly about an Iowa wrestling tournament both he and the waiter have been to, and signs an autograph. Just a couple of bros.
Palahniuk is most famous for Fight Club, the 1996 book (and the testosteroney 1999 Ed Norton–Brad Pitt movie) about bored white-collar guys who get together, strip, and beat each other to a pulp. It spawned the line “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club” and is the one novel that disaffected young bros love. Palahniuk is the sort of writer who’s so aggressively gross-out visceral that people have been known to faint at his readings. Fight Club, Palahniuk says, was about “the idea that I wish there had been a structured, consensual way of exploring my ability to experience assault and to assault another person. That I could have trusted somebody enough to say, ‘I’ve never been hit really hard and I don’t want to die not knowing what that’s like, so would you hit me and I’ll hit you?’ ” Many people see the book as pretty gay—all that sweaty man-on-man action!—but he insists it’s not, because “affection wasn’t there.”
Tell-All is more openly gay, as Palahniuk, 48, has been for a few years now (though he’s had the same boyfriend for seventeen years). It’s about Katherine Kenton, a fading, waxily preserved film goddess, who becomes locked in a rather literal death match with an opportunistic suitor who plans to publish a tell-all when she dies. It’s even written in a breathless, name-dropping, Hedda Hopper–esque style: “Act one, scene one opens with Lillian Hellman clawing her way … through the thorny nighttime underbrush of some German schwarzwald, a Jewish baby clamped to each of her tits … ”
Palahniuk wrote this juiced-up camp while his mother was dying of lung cancer. “That’s one of the great things we can experience in life,” he says, “is to make sure our parents don’t die in isolation.” It’s a tough-minded thing to say, but also tender, which seems in its way very Palahniuk. During her illness, he also wrote Damned (out next year), which was inspired by Judy Blume, about an 11-year-old girl named Madison who ends up in hell, where she’s quite popular. “It’s like The Breakfast Club, where she’s surrounded by these archetypes, like being in detention forever,” he says.
Continuing in the same vein, he might next write a young-adult novel, about bullying. “I think it’s very sweet, but my idea of sweet is not your idea of sweet,” he says. Even the bros might be okay with that.
When Palahniuk leaves, I ask the waiter if he knows Palahniuk is gay. “Yeah!” he says. “I love that he’s the guy who wrote the most masculine novel ever.”