Chuck Palahniuk, Choke (Doubleday, 2001)

Choke is the story of Victor Mancini, who makes his living by pretending to choke in expensive restaurants, depending on the old Chinese tradition that whoever saves your life is responsible for your welfare forever. He receives numerous checks in the mail and "birthday" cards observing the anniversaries of his "rebirths." He also attends sex addict support group meetings looking to get some. He visits his mother, stricken with Alzheimer's, in the hospital and pretends to be someone different each visit in order to find out how she really feels about her son.

In short, he's a right bastard. But despite the despicable qualities of its narrator (or perhaps because of them?), Choke is a riveting read. Mancini's one redeeming quality seems to be that he allows the other patients in his mother's ward to believe that he is the person who did them wrong so many years ago. He apologizes profusely, finally allowing them closure in their last days.

Palahniuk has a very sardonic style that is at first difficult to get into, especially as he begins the novel with Mancini insulting a child through his narration. He's not simply a child, but "the stupidest little rat fink crybaby twerp that ever lived." An early annoyance that turns into a running joke is Mancini's disinclination to choose the most appropriate adjective for a given situation, instead settling for one that "isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind."

But, through all this, if you're still not up to the challenge, it's your own fault. After all, he warns you right at the beginning.

"If you're going to read this, don't bother...

There has to be something better on television. Or since you have so much time on your hands, maybe you could take a night course. Become a doctor. You could make something out of yourself. Treat yourself to a dinner out. Color your hair.

You're not getting any younger."

Choke is darkly funny and in some ways a continuation of the satirical portrait of the mythology of the "typical" American male explored in Fight Club. Victor has so many idiosyncrasies that he is only believable in the context of a novel. During the daytime, Victor works at "Colonial Dunsboro" — a roleplaying historical reenactment — where he attempts to scare children by spreading the most gruesome parts of history (including the mythical meaning behind "ring-around-a-rosy"), as well as making out with the milkmaid and eschewing protection due to its historical inaccuracy ("Latex won't be invented for another century").

And then there's the time when he decides that women have bossed him around enough. He's "going on strike. From now on, women can open their own doors" and "pick up the check for their own dinners." And he'll not be "moving anybody's big heavy sofas" or "opening stuck jar lids," nor is he "ever going to put down another toilet seat."

"And for real, if I'm on a sinking ship, I'm getting in the lifeboat first."

But my favorite section has to be his description of the attendees of the sexaholics meeting. "Believe it or not, you know everybody here," he says and then goes on to describe every sex-related urban legend you've ever heard. The woman who was given a surprise party and her hosts found her naked letting her dog lick peanut butter from between her legs. The men who got their members caught in the vacuum cleaner tube, or the champagne bottle, or the jacuzzi water intake. The people who "slipped and fell" onto the shampoo bottle, or the zucchini, or the lightbulb, or the screwdriver, or the flashlight, or the gerbil, and that have to go to the hospital to have it removed. "These men and women, they're all here."

But if you're not already a follower of urban legends — or a sex addict — I suppose this all simply seems disturbing. I don't know if any of that is true or not, but it makes good fiction, and it certainly enhanced my enjoyment of this particular fiction. If it is nothing else, Choke is entertaining. I'm not sure if it's a "good" book, but I know that I was carried quickly from start to finish. Palahniuk's style flows, making his clumsy transitions easy to follow.

"Conversational" isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind.

[Craig Clarke]