By Heidi Simmons
by Chuck Palahniuk
The majority of fictionalized stories have recognizable characters and settings where life unfolds in familiar ways no mater how dramatic. Then there are the fictional stories of Chuck Palahniuk. His characters and settings are often just beyond our familiar world and the dramatic events are extreme. In his novel, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (Anchor Books, 319 pages), Palahniuk delivers an edgy commentary of a life most unusual.
Dozens of odd characters recount the story of Buster “Rant” Casey. Family, friends and enemies share their experience knowing Rant. Random people, doctors and scientists comment on his infamous existence as well. As the non-linear narrative twists and turns, a strange and mysterious person emerges and Rant’s death is more than what it seems.
Buster Casey was born in Middleton, a rural farming community where everyone knows everybody’s business. His mother, Irene, was only 14 when she gave birth. Chester Casey married her, though he claimed not to be the boy’s father. After his mother called him a monster and his father refused to help him when he was bitten by a black widow spider, Buster grew up feeling different and unloved by his eccentric folks.
His classmates nicknamed him Rant after he hosted a Halloween party where the blindfolded kids learned they groped and squeezed raw cow organs. Rant was the sound they made while vomiting. Rant was proud of himself and his ability to give his friends and community an experience they would never forget.
As young boy, Rant becomes a tooth fairy trading antique gold coins for teeth. The entire community’s economy improves just so Rant can freely buy the things he wants without suspicion. He discovered the coins after a mysterious man tells him where to find them.
As he matures, Rant has odd hobbies and strange gifts. He has heightened senses. He is able to smell and taste so well he can detect what and when people ate by tasting a person’s skin or smelling their personal items. He likes to go “fishing” in the earth for poisonous and venomous creatures and likes it when he’s bitten!
Rant becomes a carrier of rabies. Popular with boys and girls, Rant spreads the deadly virus throughout the community. He is patient Zero and it is the start of a deadly epidemic that will change the landscape of the nation and threaten everyday life for all.
When Rant finally leaves town, most residents are happy to see him go. In fact, he is paid by the school district to drop out of high school after he stages an “erection” revolt with his male classmates. The boys get, or claim to have, painful erections to get out of class similar to how girls use menstral cramps as an excuse.
Rant makes his way to the big city where a dystopian society is divided into two groups: Daytimers and Nighttimers. It is a future world where books and movies no longer exist and the population is segregated by day and night.
Soon Rant becomes one of the oppressed Nighttimmers and gets involved with a group of rebels called the “Party Crashers” who turn the streets into a literal demolition derby. He meets and falls in love with Echo Lawrence, a crippled girl with similar sensory perception. The two are destined to meet and become a formidable driving team. During a live broadcast on radio, Rant steels a car and deliberately crashes into a river where his body is never found.
An arrest warrant is issued, but no one can say for sure what happened to Rant. His life becomes a mystery, which soon becomes a legend and finally he is a mythological god forever a part of history.
This is way more than just a story about a crazy, malicious farm boy who starts a deadly epidemic and loses control of a car and dies. This is a tale of immortality and how humans create gods.
Through the many first-person interviews — some characters are reliable and some certainly not — the reader comes to realize that Rant may be a time-traveler. Quite possibly, according to his friends who knew him well, Rant is in the process of becoming immortal — what the Nighttimers refer to as a “Historian.” Rant has gone back three generations, reproducing himself to be stronger and immune to disease. He is both the Son and the Father and through a virus, Omnipresent. Sound familiar?
Author Palahniuk fearlessly enters the genre of fictional oral history to show the reader just how complicated it is to fully comprehend life, our human condition and the strange reality we find ourselves in on this planet. Humans witness and perceive existence differently. The book is filled with tantalizing ideas and fantastic themes that slowly emerge within and throughout the oral biography.
I especially appreciated the new form of entertainment called “boosted-peak technology” where people plug into a personalized first-hand sensory experience. My favorite is the concept of “Liminal Time” where one exists outside of linear time to be in the moment where there is no beginning and no end.
Palahniuk is an explicit writer and his prose are not for the squeamish. But, when you have had enough Young Adult literature posing as adult fiction, Palahniuk is a brilliant breath of fresh fictional air. Rant is truly an adult novel that challenges the reader to let go and experience something completely original. All good literary fiction reflects our ordinary human nature, struggles and desires. But in Palahniuk’s Rant, it goes even further.