Ten years ago Katherine Dunn was strolling through an experimental garden in Portland, Ore., where new types of roses were bred. Angry with her son, Eli, then 8, she began to daydream—if we can genetically design flowers, why not kids? Why shouldn’t parents be able to bear offspring who won’t talk back or misbehave?
That moment of ordinary maternal frustration eventually spawned a rather extraordinary work of fiction. Published last month, Dunn’s third novel, Geek Love, is the story of a carnival family that breeds its own sideshow. The parents, Aloysius and Lily Binewski, own a circus, Binewski’s Fabulon, plagued by defections. The circus’s geek (the act who bites the heads off live chickens) is usually a college boy on a lark. The fat lady has absconded to become a model for Chubby Chaser magazine, and an entire family of animal eroticists has bolted, taking with them their donkey, goat and Great Dane.
So the Binewskis decide to guarantee the show’s survival and trim the payroll by creating their own freaks. Supervised by Al, Lily spends each pregnancy ingesting drugs, insecticides and radioisotopes. The results are Olympia, a bald hunchback albino dwarf; Electra and Iphigenia, Siamese twins who play piano duets; Arturo, a hairless creature with flippers instead of limbs who becomes the leader of a religious cult; and Fortunato, who is almost abandoned at birth because he looks normal but is soon discovered to be telekinetic.
It’s not exactly Leave It to Beaver, and Dunn is no June Cleaver. She lives in a musty second-floor apartment in Portland, where an old Christmas wreath remains attached to the front door. (“The needles aren’t falling off,” Dunn says. “Why should I take it down?”) In the living room, a velvet portrait of Elvis hangs over a beat-up ensemble of beige Naugahyde furniture. Dunn’s son, Eli, and her boyfriend, Jim Redden, a journalist, traipse through in various stages of undress.
Dunn’s background too is a bit unorthodox. Born in 1945 in Garden City, Kans., she barely knew her father, a Linotype operator who left the family before Dunn was 2. Her mother was a sometime painter who “couldn’t come back from the supermarket without telling a story,” Dunn says. Katherine, her two brothers and a new stepfather did their best to match her tales. The family moved around almost as much as the Fabulon, picking grapes, living out of cars, taking on odd jobs. Dunn attended scores of different grammar schools, trying on a different personality for each one. The last character she played, the class clown, stuck when her parents finally settled down in Tigard, Ore.
In addition to sporadic stints at Oregon colleges, Dunn did time in a Kansas City jail for passing a bad check and roamed around in the U.S. and Europe. She has worked as a topless dancer, a bartender and the voice of Red Ryder on a popular children’s radio show in Portland—among other things. Dunn is now a free-lance boxing correspondent for the Associated Press (she was the only woman to cover the Hearns-Leonard fight in 1981) and writes a column for Willamette Week, in which she answers such questions as why people staple posters to both sides of Portland’s telephone poles and where the phrase “eat crow” came from. She also published two novels, Attic and Truck, almost 20 years ago, both of which were experimental fiction. In 1970 Dunn, then living in Dublin with an earlier boyfriend (they never married) and their newborn son, decided that before she wrote another novel she would “learn how to write logically.” The result is Geek Love.
Despite this unusual curriculum vitae, Dunn is “bizarrely normal,” says Mark Zusman, the editor of Willamette Week. “She is sweet, unpretentious and a devoted mother. She may seem an anties-tablishment type, but actually her views are closer to Betty Crocker’s than Bella Abzug’s.”
Growing up, however, Dunn says she felt like “an outsider who knew I couldn’t be an insider. I wanted to become a very special outsider so the others would like me.” Instead, in her peripatetic 20s, Dunn realized that “every rich bitch and every poor white slut are the same,” she says. “They only have different veneers.”
Her new novel expands on that notion. “My characters’ stories are exactly the same as everyone else’s,” Dunn says. “It’s essentially any family’s story. Every one of us is walking around with a hunchback albino dwarf somewhere inside.” The trick of her novel is to make the reader aware that this little dwarf is not so bad—that deformities can be liberating and “normality” a mire of unfulfilled dreams. “Too often people know their hunchback, but they never become fond of it. If you step into my book, maybe you can recognize something, see part of your own life from a different angle. The book works if it helps shed clichés about who we are and how we live.”
Obviously it doesn’t work for everyone. Though Geek Love has become a spring publishing event—widely reviewed, with European editions and a six-figure paperback sale—Knopf president Sonny Mehta (who has already picked up Dunn’s next book for $175,000) admits that “some people might find the book threatening.” (One New York reviewer, comparing Geek Love to a horror film, wrote “this is the first book I’ve ever walked out of.”) But others find the spirit of geekdom contagious. In a move somewhat out of character for the venerable publishing house, Knopf redrew its famous borzoi wolfhound logo for the dust jacket of Geek Love. On Dunn’s book the dog has an extra front leg.