Oral History with Mischief, Disgusting Bits

Article excerpt

Byline: Sonny Bunch, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"Any time anybody in Middleton opens their mouth, you need to ask: 'Why are you telling me this?'"

This piece of advice comes about a third of the way through Chuck Palahniuk's latest novel, "Rant," and it's something the reader should keep in mind. Subtitled "An Oral Biography of Buster Casey," this work is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart - the story's protagonist (whose own words appear only once, as part of a radio recording) sticks his arms down foxholes for fun and purposely spreads rabies. How he does so is not fit for description in a family publication.

This is not to suggest the book is not wildly entertaining. "Rant" is told in a tragically underutilized style - that of the oral history, in which interviewees' (sometimes contradictory) quotes are interlaced to create a narrative and allow the reader to decide exactly which sequence of events to believe.

And it is an absolutely fascinating look at what "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" might look like if Mark Twain were alive today, setting his tales in the not-too-distant-future and writing like a patient committed to a mental ward for the safety of society. It's hard to view the first half of the book as anything other than homage to Samuel Clemens (and there are direct references to both of the great writer's most famous creations later in the book).

Mr. Palahniuk spends the first 100 pages or so following the trials and tribulations of a rural youngster by the name of Rant Casey (Buster to his folks), who sets about getting into all manners of mischief to cause trouble for the various townsfolk.

Instead of hiding in caves and faking his own death a la Sawyer, however, Rant destroys the local economy by trading incredibly valuable gold coins for teeth, like a tooth fairy who has grown rich as Croesus. On another occasion he sets up a neighborhood haunted house; you might be familiar with the type - one in which blindfolded children touch peeled grapes, elbow macaroni and warm gelatin but are told they are touching the eyeballs, brains and blood of a recently deceased murder victim.

Except in Rant's haunted house, there are no grapes, macaroni or gelatin. …