Books: Anyone for religious sportswear?

Survivor by Chuck Palahnuik Cape pounds 10

Celebrity status seems to be the topic of the season. Woody Allen, Richard Curtis and A A Gill have already showed us how soul-sapping living under the public gaze can be. Now, after the success of his debut novel Fight Club (recently filmed with Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter), Chuck Palahniuk in Survivor turns for inspiration to that old notorious celebrity, the American evangelist. And with immensely entertaining results.

At the age of 34 Tender Branson hijacks a Boeing 747 and narrates his life story into its black box before the plane nose-dives into the Australian outback. Tender grew up in the rural colony of the Creedish Death Cult, the kind of innocuous mid-west religious sect that Louis Theroux might visit.

After an accusation of child abuse the FBI closes in on the church, only to find that the colony has committed mass suicide. Tender and a few hundred other stragglers are put on the Federal Survivor Retention Programme and given caseworkers, but it's not long before the others sacrifice themselves to the doctrine. Cue the messiah-marketing machine. Within a day of becoming the sole survivor Tender has an agent, a ghost-written autobiography, and a line of sackcloth religious sportswear and a future on "the Tender Branson Miracle Crusade".

We have a stand-offish relationship with stars in Britain but in the US a more frenetic attitude prevails. Whether you're discovered going down on the Titanic or the President, it's not so much what you do but that people know about it that matters. Palahniuk has an instinctive feel for these media junkies. "The biggest factor that makes you a saint is the amount of press coverage you get," claims Tender's agent. "You wonder, if there had been a low turnout at the Crucifixion, would they have rescheduled?"

The book really shines when Tender, ignorant of the American dream and keen to please, confronts the twin forces of commerce and authority. As his caseworker attempts to diagnose him he sees no reason to disappoint her. "She told me I was an exhibitionist so the next week, I mooned her," he admits. "She told me I was attention-deficient so I kept changing the subject." He is an innocent abroad within his own country and all the more sympathetic for his predicament. Another section has him manipulated into releasing a Book of Common Prayer from which his followers recite The Prayer to Delay Orgasm and The Prayer to Silence Car Alarms.

Palahniuk's one shortfall is his repetitive shorthand prose, which aims to display Tender's hapless outlook but too often fogs the central narrative. If Palahniuk had played it stylistically straight Survivor could have been as much of a landmark in popular fiction as The World According to Garp. However, it still remains an extremely funny account of an outsider stuck inside America, and Tender, like Garp and Owen Meaney, remains with the reader long after the final page.

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