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Fright Club

In the chilling Diary, an artist falls victim to a sinister cabal on a once-quaint island

Diary, by Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday, 260 pp.,$24.95

Chuck Palahniuk may be the least pretentious American author still shelved under literary fiction. There is nothing subtle or writerly about his prose; if his five previous novels -- which include the best-selling "Lullaby" and "Fight Club" -- were cars, they'd be a fleet of mud-spattered Jeeps. You can feel "Diary," Palahniuk's latest offering, lurching as he shifts gears, hear the growl of the engine. It reads as if he researched it in three weeks and banged it out in six, a bottle of whiskey and a stack of takeout menus by his side. These are all good things.

Palahniuk's appeal has always been his ability to provide dark, trenchant commentary on contemporary life without compromising his story for the sake of the ideas lurking in the background. Here, the (seemingly unrelated) concepts in play include the scourge of tourism, the relationship between great art and great suffering, and the supernatural inescapability of fate.

The stage is once-quaint Waytansea Island, where old-money families in bad decline are being overrun by ferry-loads of gaudy "summer people" who keep the local economy limping along. The protagonist is the embattled Misty Marie Wilmot, whose daily diary entries constitute the novel.

Misty, a waitress at the local hotel, married into the closed community of the island. She met her husband, Peter, in art school, where she painted technically perfect houses and landscapes from imagination. Or so she thought; when Misty and Peter move to Waytansea, she realizes she's been mapping a real-life town she had never seen.

Misty is greeted by the islanders with excitement; every fourth generation, it seems, a female artist from Waytansea wins worldwide fame, and the locals expect no less of Misty. Their confidence in her inevitable success -- especially the confidence of Misty's mother-in-law, Grace -- is so intense it's scary. Soon after giving birth to a daughter, Tabbi, Misty puts her work aside.

"Diary" opens 13 years later, with Peter in a coma after an apparent suicide attempt. A remodeler by trade, he had spent the previous months in a state of secret derangement, drywalling over the doors to rooms in his clients' houses and filling the now-hidden chambers with cryptic graffiti warning of the island's impending doom. Misty, facing lawsuits galore from Peter's clients, rents out the family estate. She, Grace, and Tabbi move into the top floor of the hotel.

Misty's "coma diary" is addressed to Peter, but written mostly in the third person. In it, she records the increasingly bizarre present, recalls the past in a series of poignant flashbacks to art school, and sets down the ever-expanding rules to the Misty Wilmot Drinking Game: "When the summer people ask for coffee drinks with foamed milk or chelated silver or carob sprinkles or soy-based anything, take another drink . . . when [Grace and Tabbi] both sit there at table eight, Granmy Wilmot telling Tabbi, `Your mother would be a famous artist if she'd only try,' take a drink."

The drinking game riff is one of several choruses to which Palahniuk returns. Misty also gives a daily psychological weather report ("Just for the record, the weather today is partly suspicious with chances of betrayal"), and often disrupts her third-person narration to rephrase a sentence as an address to Peter ("He's pulled the pleated drapes shut and spray painted his words across the inside of them. You have"). She unfailingly describes facial expressions by referring to muscles whose names she learned in art school ("her levator labii superioris pulls her upper lip into a sneer"), and begins dozens of sentences with the words "What they don't teach you in art school is . . ." Although such refrains are true to Misty's voice and help make her the memorable character she is, their frequency and number wear. They begin to seem like checkpoints, mile-markers.

"Diary" needs no such devices. As the parallels between Misty's life and that of the two previous Waytansea artists start to emerge, as Misty begins to find hidden messages in their handwriting, and as Grace goads her into painting again, the novel grows ever more sinister and interesting. Everyone knows more than Misty; the whole island is conspiring against her, and maybe Peter's graffiti wasn't as crazy as it looked. Misty's art seems to be the key to Waytansea's rejuvenation, and Grace seems to know what her daughter-in-law will do before Misty herself, thanks to an old diary that appears to predict her future.

As the noose tightens, Misty finds herself trapped in a hotel room, crippled by a massive, unnecessary leg cast and blindfolded -- a victim of circumstances calculated to produce artistic greatness. She begins to paint obsessively and masterfully, as if in a trance. Meanwhile, her only ally, a summer renter who studies Peter's handwriting in the hopes of decoding his scribbled madness, is nowhere to be found, and a mysterious eco-terrorist group begins setting fire to every house in which Peter scrawled his warnings.

Throughout, Palahniuk's pacing is impeccable. Although the threat posed by tourism is weakly dramatized and the reason for the drying up of old-money family funds remains somewhat vague -- shortcomings that are especially unfortunate since these are the two factors that motivate the cabal manipulating Misty -- "Diary" still percolates. Misty's narrative voice is funny and urgent, tragic and clear, and Palahniuk draws from a strange palette of worldly nihilism and supernatural conspiracy to paint a compelling portrait of the artist as an unwitting conduit of evil.

Adam Mansbach is the author of the novel "Shackling Water."

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