Katherine Dunn, the author of the darkly beautiful, disturbing, surreal carnival novel Geek Love, died on May 11 at age 70. Her son told Willamette Week the cause was complications from lung cancer.
Geek Love inspired legions of obsessive, devoted fans, many of whom became writers themselves. It tells the story of a traveling carnival family, the Binewskis, self-described “freaks” born with unique and bewitching bodily eccentricities made possible by their mother Lillian ingesting a variety of wild chemicals. The book begins as a dreamy, quirky, charming portrait of family life on the road and descends into rape, murder, despair and an obsessive cult centered around people who want to cut off their own limbs. It’s one of the best novels ever written, the kind of book that takes up perpetual residence in your dreams.
Born in Kansas, Dunn lived most of her life in Portland, Oregon. She wrote her first two books, Attic in 1970 and Truck in 1971, while she was traveling through Europe. In Ireland, she had a son, Eli Dapolonia, and returned home with him. She published Geek Love in 1983 and then became a bit of a mystery in the Harper Lee vein, not publishing a work of fiction for more than 25 years.
In 1989, Dunn announced another novel, the Cut Man, but despite several planed publication dates, it never appeared. A portion of it was published in the Paris Review under the title “Rhonda Discovers Art,” but it’s unclear whether the finished book will ever see the light of day. She mostly declined to discuss the book: “I don’t want to talk about it,” she told Willamette Week in 2000. “I’m too superstitious.”
Dunn had what sounds like a busy, restless, hardworking life as a single mother, working as a poet, a housepainter, a waitress and a bartender, as well as a prolific and accomplished essayist on boxing. She served for years as a staff writer for the site Cyber Boxing Zone and a columnist for Willamette Week. Her interest in boxing was more than writerly: she took it up herself in the ‘90s and made news for fighting off a purse snatcher in a grocery store parking lot in 2009. She was 64 at the time.
Her son told The Oregonian she got letters for years from fans of Geek Love and her other works:
Although she responded only occasionally - “she was a very private person” - she read them all, he said.
He remembered his mother working on poetry or fiction whenever she had spare time between her jobs during his childhood, using first a manual typewriter then an electric typewriter for years before she could afford a computer. “She had tremendous creativity and she worked really hard at it,” Dapolonia said, adding that his mother considered writing “a real craft that required constant effort.”
Dunn was aware of the puzzlement created by her extra-long gap between novels; her agent once told a critic she had said writers “are like faucets.”
“Some drip and some are on free flow,” the agent, Richard Pine, added. “She drips and she’s happy dripping.”
Dapolonia told the Week that his mother reunited with her college boyfriend Paul Pomerantz in 2012. They were married and enjoyed four happy years together before she died.
Dunn in 2008 at a literary festival in Rome. Photo via Getty