the problem facing any author who comes up with what people call a voice-of-the-Zeitgeist novel is, what do you do for an encore? The film version of Chuck Palahniuk's first novel, Fight Club, became the rage among the under-40 set. It's a terrifically entertaining book as well as the expression of Gen-X rage against everything.
Palahniuk's novels are set among the contemporary dispossessed. In Fight Club, it's the world of McJobs and Microserfdom, and the characters, offspring of broken families, are caught in the comic hell of support groups
In Choke, his fourth novel, protagonist Victor Mancini is a 12-stepping sexual addict watching his mother slowly die in a retirement home that costs him $3,000 a month he doesn't have. He develops a dependency scam: pretending to choke in restaurants, he lets people Heimlich him and then establishes relationships with them so he can ask them for help with his rent.
It's not quite as complicated as it sounds -- Palahniuk is skilled enough to keep all the balls in the air -- but it never really takes hold.
The novel purports to be Mancini's fourth step -- the moral inventory -- but sexual addiction is apparently treated by different rules than alcoholism, since none of the characters ever seems to stop having sex as part of their recovery.
Palahniuk has a great ear for self-deceptive cant -- Marla's suicidal posing in Fight Club comes to mind -- and a genuine satirical edge, but that's what's missing in Choke. The edge is blunted, and the character work is fuzzier around the edges than in his earlier novels.
If Choke were someone's first novel, it would be a praiseworthy start. From the author of Fight Club and Survivor, more is expected.
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CHOKE by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday), 304 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NN