The Strange and Beautiful Life of Katherine Dunn, Portland’s Beloved Geek
She tended bar, sliced up sanctimony, and maybe even breathed fire.
BY AARON MESH, MATTHEW KORFHAGE and BETH SLOVIC
Katherine Dunn 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.
Dunn 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 Dunn from being a single mother working three jobs in Northwest Portland 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 Rene Denfeld. “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: Dunn 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.
Dunn’s death May 11 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.
Susan Orlean, The New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief, who worked alongside Dunn at WW in the early 1980s, recalls Dunn 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, Dunn talked Orlean through each round, explaining the fighters’ jabs and footwork until the other writer grew fascinated, then entranced.
“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…”
Read more of the tribute at Willamette Week’s site.