by Chuck Palahniuk
(Doubleday) $24.95

Our special morning in the smokehouse, Miss Lacey was bobbing on my dog with a good mouthful of spit. Then we were sucking tongues, sweating hard and trading drool, and she pulled back for a good look at me. In the dim smoky light, those big fake plastic hams were hanging all around us. She's just swamped and riding my hand, hard, and breathing between each word. She wipes her mouth and asks me if I have any protection."

Victor Mancini, the protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk's novel Choke, is a sex addict who divides his time between choking in restaurants for money, working in a Colonial-period theme park, and scamming on "recovering" female sex addicts out on short-term, treatment-oriented jail release. There's plenty of sex in the book--the mechanics of sex anyway, bodily fluids and logistics.

The sex is grueling, born of compulsion. Even orchestrated efforts at fantasy-based sex are undermined by slavish attention to material trappings: "I can't rape her on the bed, she says, the spread is pale pink silk and will spot. And not on the floor because the carpet hurts her skin. We agreed on the floor, but on a towel. Not a good guest towel, she said. She told me she'd leave a ratty towel on the dresser, and I'd need to spread it on the floor ahead of time so as not to break the mood." There's no acceptable place for the "white soldiers" to land.

Choking on food takes on more sensuality: "My lips crack, trying to get around the chunk of steak, the meat salty and juicy with fat and crushed pepper. My tongue pulls back to make more room, and the drool in my mouth wells up. Hot juice and drool slop out on my chin."

When I ask Palahniuk what role he sees sex as filling, in this book and in life, he says, "Sexual attraction is an energy, device, or motive to bring two people together, hopefully for long enough that they discover each other more fully. God told me all this. In Choke, the protagonist uses the physical act as a reward in itself, to deaden his own fears. The way people drink or use drugs.... In Choke, sex is a distraction. A way to procrastinate on your big issues, hopefully until you die. Like... television. "

He says, "We collapse love and sex too much in our culture. Sex is the immediate symbol for romantic love in books and songs and movies. Love, L-O-V-E love, is what my grandparents have after 60 years of being together, supporting and serving each other. And my guess is they haven't done the hot-thing in decades."

Despite all the sex scenes, Choke is still clearly a novel of ideas, an analytical book, rather than simply linked gratuitous physical groping. Palahniuk says the book uses "sex as a sort of physical wallpaper or 'business' that people are doing while they talk or otherwise reveal secrets about themselves." He says, "When you think about it, sex is seldom just sex. More often it's, 'I want to make him love me' or 'God, I'm such a stud' or 'I can't wait to call my girl/boyfriends and tell them who I'm bagging right now!' Writing sex is a way to space out the real message of the scene. It's filler. The Hamburger Helper of fiction."

Like his previous novel, Fight Club, Choke ends just as two lead characters come to the place where they could possibly move to a deeper level of relationship. Palahniuk defines this structure as a classic myth form, taking two people and forcing them to survive a shared trial.

"The trial reveals the best and worst of them to each other. In a way, it could be like so many romances where limerance is cut short by pregnancy, then marriage, then the ordeal or quest of raising a child. The trick [in writing] is to drop the curtain soon after the ordeal is resolved."

So what's the hardest part of writing a sex scene? "Making it crude enough to seem honest, adding the smells and awkward movements and thinly veiled statements that reveal the inner needy parts of the people while they hump."

Chuck Palahniuk will say more on this subject during the Northwest Bookfest's "Writing Sex and Death" workshop, which will be on the Maclean Stage Sat Oct 20, 10:15 to 11:15 am