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Master of the sucker-punch sentence

Katherine Dunn ’69

Katherine Dunn in 1987. “Write as though nobody has ever written anything before,” Prof. Lloyd Reynolds told her.

Katherine Dunn in 1987. “Write as though nobody has ever written anything before,” Prof. Lloyd Reynolds told her. Alan Borrud/The Oregonian via AP

Katherine saw broken and twisted things, wrapped them in her words, and made them beautiful. A boxer’s bleeding cuts. A nightclub crawling with slurring drunks. A boy born with flippers for arms and legs, who sweet-talks his cult followers into sawing off their own limbs.

She gained an adoring band of fans with Geek Love, the 1989 novel about a family of willfully mutated circus performers that will endure as her literary feat. The book became a phenomenon, taking her from being a single mother working three jobs to the matriarch of Portland’s authors and poets. Yet her singular talent—for fearlessly probing what others wished to skirt—extended beyond a single book.

“She believed the job of a writer is to tell the truth—not the truth that Aunt Mabel wants to hear, not the truth that will sell books,” says Portland author Renee Denfeld ’88. “She always said she was waiting for a male writer to write a memoir that was not about all the women he’d slept with, but about having a problem with premature ejaculation.”

She could, as the boxing trainers liked to say, write a bit. Essays, reportage, humor squibs, novels, she moved fluidly from one to another.

For a time, she became the nation’s only female sportswriter covering boxing. From 1984 to 1992, she wrote a column in Willamette Week, “The Slice,” that answered reader questions ranging from the size of Forest Park to the shape of an opossum’s penis. She never published another novel after Geek Love, yet never stopped writing its follow-up. She was working on her next book until earlier this year.

Geek Love book cover

Her death at age 70 from lung cancer robbed Portland of one of its finest writers and most inimitable characters. Those she left behind have been wistfully eager to describe her mettle, generosity, and vitality—her ability to make life an adventure and take others along for the trip. 

Author Susan Orlean, who worked alongside Katherine at WW in the 1980s, recalls her wrangling the newsroom into attending boxing matches. “She finally convinced me to go,” Orlean says, “and I went imagining I would have my hands over my eyes most of the time and my fingers in my ears.”

Instead, Katherine talked Orlean through each round, explaining the fighters’ jabs and footwork until the other writer grew fascinated.

“It was in real time, what her writing was like,” Orlean says now. “This pure conveyance of a really brilliant take on the world, on emotion, on human frailty, on striving and failure, and she really made it make sense and made it beautiful. She was, I’m sure, punching me in the shoulder saying, ‘See, I told you. I told you you’d like it.’”

Katherine was born in Garden City, Kansas, in 1945. Her mother, Velma, hailed from Velva, North Dakota, where she later returned to tend cattle until she was 98. Katherine’s father left before she turned two, and Velma married a gentle giant of a car mechanic from Puget Sound. The family moved westward, picking fruit and eventually settling in Tigard.

She showed little nostalgia for her childhood. “That post-WWII America was a rough place, as I recall,” she wrote. “Racism and sexism were insistent and institutional. Spousal battery was condoned. The smacking and whipping of children in school and at home was expected. Gangs were common. Brawls boiled up in streets, playgrounds, taverns and workplaces.”

Her youthful memories usually surfaced in jokes. Writer Mark Christensen says Katherine would joke she didn’t have money for booze or drugs as a young person, so she would float in Tigard’s Fanno Creek like Ophelia, hoping to catch a bug that would give her a high. “She had a good sense of humor,” Christensen says, “but I also think maybe she did that.”

As a teenager, Katherine read a magazine article about Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English and art 1929–69] and became obsessed with Reed—to the point where she would eat in commons, climb on the roof of Eliot Hall, and sleep under stairs in the dorms. In 1965, her wish came true—she won a full scholarship to Reed. 

Her son, Eli Dapolonia, says she was thrilled to attend an elite school after her hardscrabble childhood. “Other kids in college would complain about the cafeteria food,” he says. “She thought it was the best food she’d ever had.”

Katherine later told the Oregonian that Prof. Reynolds gave her two pieces of advice. “I’m sure that somewhere in your heart is music,” he said as she struggled with her letter forms. The second was more profound: “Write as though nobody has ever written anything before.” 

from the Griffin

From the Griffin

In 1967, she dropped out of Reed to travel the world with a man named Dante Dapolonia, whom she had met on Thanksgiving break in San Francisco. She wrote a novel, Truck, in Spain and a second, Attic, on the Greek island of Karpathos, and gave birth to Eli in Dublin in 1970. 

She returned to Portland as a single mother in 1975, found a walk-up apartment in the Alphabet District, and began a typical day at 6 am, serving breakfast at Stepping Stone Cafe, where her customers included Trail Blazers center Bill Walton. She finished it at a dive bar named the Earth, working until last call. She later recalled having a female patron punch her in the face, and a biker nearly slashed her throat.

“You can’t be a girl behind the bar,” she said in 1983, “you gotta be a woman. When the guys come in there to get sloshed, you must—just by your demeanor—remind them that they are now a guest in your home. That’s one of the advantages, though, of being a woman in a situation like the Earth’s. Even most of the wildest roughnecks in town are inclined to behave themselves if a female is in charge.”

Her other gigs included house painting, topless dancing, and hosting a radio show on KBOO-FM, where she read short stories aloud. Somehow, she still found time to write.

In 1981, her first byline appeared in Willamette Week, a publication she would later describe as “a small alternative newspaper operating on one wing and a lot of elbow grease in a medium-sized town in the mildew zone.” Her first article was a review of Stephen King’s Cujo.

She soon turned to boxing, persuading WW to send her to Las Vegas to cover the world middleweight championship match between “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Thomas “Hitman” Hearns in 1985. Her coverage began: “The high-voltage zing of a big fight is legendary. No Hollywood premiere, no Broadway opening, no ticker-tape parade draws so widely and deeply from the glitter heart of America. Stars and pimps rub satin shoulders. Tycoons and bricklayers, high-priced hookers and righteous socialites, all flaunt their glad rags in identical excitement.”

 In 1984, she started her Willamette Week column, “The Slice.” She answered questions on such pressing topics as why men have nipples, who was scrawling “Jesus Saves” graffiti across Portland, and whether George H.W. Bush claimed to have had sex with Ronald Reagan.

In the WW newsroom, she was a fixture and den mother. A former staffer recalls her carefully weighing how to approach the fallout of a political scandal, suggesting how to angle the story sensitively. 

“Or,” she concluded, “you could bury the bastard.”

She often sported a button reading “Sluts From Hell” and another pin that read “The Meek Shall Inherit Shit.” She announced herself with a loud, throaty laugh and a cloud of cigarette smoke. She rolled each cigarette herself.

“She wore oversize glasses that seemed to magnify her gaze—you really felt like she could see through you,” says former WW reporter Chris Lydgate ’90. “She smoked like a chimney and swore like a sailor. In print, she was devastating—the undisputed master of the sucker-punch sentence. I had never met anyone remotely like her, and never will again.”

Christensen recalls walking in Washington Park with her sometime in the 1980s, talking about her son. “Could you deal with kids the same way people at Washington Park deal with the roses?” she asked. That idea became the biologically engineered Binewski children of Geek Love, whose parents breed circus freaks by ingesting cocaine and insecticides.

 Geek Love came into the world like many of the characters it describes—as a willful freak of a book. When it was published in 1989, it was like no other book that existed, with a stark design whose font and logo were marred by “mutations.” Its plot was equally odd, centering on the rise and fall of the Binewskis, who bred their own children to become their circus’s deformed human attractions.

But a quarter century after its publication, Geek Love has evolved into a sort of Catcher in the Rye for much weirder kids—a morbidly funny tale of diabolical son Arty the Aquaboy and his messianic brother Chick, a softhearted kid born with both telekinesis and a fateful temper.

The book seems uniquely suited to the ramshackle, almost deranged Portland of the ’80s. But its exuberantly lyric swirl of beauty and disgust, sadness and uncommon wisdom resonated far beyond. The book was published in 13 languages, including Finnish and Hebrew, and has never been out of print. It has always inspired extreme reactions. The New York Times groused over the book’s “spectacle,” and the Orlando Sentinel refused to review it, declaring that “the subject matter is too disturbing, the imagery too grotesque.” But the Seattle Times pronounced it “probably one of the most extraordinary novels of this decade.” It was a finalist for the 1989 National Book Award.

 Geek Love changed Katherine’s life. The book sold more than 400,000 copies, but it wasn’t the acclaim, the awards, or the sales that made a practical difference. It was the movie rights—sold over and over again, to such disparate figures as Tim Burton and Night Court star Harry Anderson. “All of a sudden, Mom had money,” Dapolonia says. “More money than she’d ever seen before.”

She bought a six-bedroom house in the Alphabet District and offered spare rooms to her son’s friends. She loaned money to colleagues and mentored a slew of Portland writers. The newfound celebrity did not tame her. Portland writer Angie Jabine ’79 organized a benefit reading in 1992 featuring Katherine, Jean Auel, and Ken Kesey. Katherine canceled at the last minute—a casualty of her interest in sideshows.

“Supposedly, the fire marshal objected when she said she didn’t want to read but to demonstrate fire breathing, which she’d been learning for several years from an expert,” Angie says. “That’s one explanation. The other is that she’d burned herself, and was in no condition to read.”

For many years, Katherine worked on a follow-up novel to Geek Love, a boxing saga called The Cut Man. The only portion that’s ever been seen is a short excerpt that ran in The Paris Review in 2010. “She made a lot of revisions,” Dapolonia says. “And when she died, as far as we know, she wasn’t finished.”

 In 2013, she married her second husband, Paul Pomerantz ’67—an old boyfriend from her days at Reed. In April, the cigarettes caught up to her. The bout with lung cancer lasted just five weeks. She told almost no one—even close friends—that she was dying. 

On May 13, Portland poet Walt Curtis mailed WW a letter, composed on a typewriter. “My Gawd, I just heard that Katherine Dunn died,” he wrote. “I am saddened, stunned. I always felt that she was indestructible.”

By Aaron Mesh, Matthew Korfhage and Beth Slovic. Adapted from Willamette Week with permission.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2016

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