- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

RANT: AN ORAL BIOGRAPHY OF BUSTER CASEY

By Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, $24.95, 336 pages

REVIEWED BY SONNY BUNCH

“Anytime 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. And I won’t even try to explain how the boy gets both a diploma and a big fat check from his high school just to keep him from ever entering a classroom again.

After discussing his, ah, unorthodox childhood, the oral history moves to Rant’s time in the big city. This is a vaguely dystopian America; though the root causes are not explored in any detail, it seems as though massive overcrowding of cities (and the crippling gridlock that would arise as a result should everyone be on the streets at the same time) led the government to impose a bifurcated state in which some people are allowed out only at day, others only at night.

In other words, it’s kind of like gas rationing during the Carter years, only for hours in the day instead of petrol and far, far worse. (OK, slightly worse.)

The angst of being relegated to the night underclass has given rise to Party Crashing, a phenomenon whereby seemingly ordinary people drive around smashing each other’s cars to smithereens. As Rant’s journey into this world continues and interview subjects express themselves more freely, it becomes clear that Party Crashers feel they are doing more than simply destroying automobiles — they think they’ve discovered some sort of higher truth.

The beauty of Mr. Palahniuk’s use of oral history is its ambiguity. Are the characters suffering from delusions of grandeur related to the debilitating effects of rabies upon the human brain? Or have they in fact discovered the secret of time travel and immortality by launching Cadillacs into one another at high rates of speed? It’s hard to tell.

But it’s a book, and a story, worth reading twice in order to catch all the nuances. Indeed, the first few pages only make sense with the benefit of hindsight. Assuming you can withstand the exceptionally strong assault on the senses “Rant” delivers, you will not be disappointed — it’s easily Mr. Palahniuk’s best work since “Fight Club.”

Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.

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