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I once heard someone describe reading Chuck Palahniuk as thinking about the most shocking thing possible and having that be the next thing to happen. To be honest, though, one couldn't possibly fathom the plot changes Palahniuk comes up with.

In Lullaby, the heir apparent to Bret Easton Ellis is back with the same style of "did he really write that?" fiction. With his latest effort, Palahniuk introduces middle-aged newspaper hack Carl Streator who is covering a series of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome cases. Through meticulous notes, he finds that each child was read the same poem the night he or she died. He soon discovers that the passage -- an African "culling song" -- works on adults as well when he accidentally knocks off an annoying editor. Just consider the temptations; abusive strangers, inconsiderate neighbors, self-righteous talk show hosts -- all can be erased by reciting a few lines.

Just days into his killing spree, Carl meets Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate agent who pawns off haunted houses to oblivious buyers. Discovering she too knows the power of the culling song, they set out together to track down and destroy every copy of the poem. Though not exactly Kerouac's On the Road, Lullaby's road trip is a darkly hilarious rant against mass consumerism and conformity.

Despite his wickedly dark plots, Palahniuk's greatest tool is his characters, each complex and wildly nonconformists. And like Choke and Fight Club before it, Lullaby reveals that the answers to what we thought we knew 200 pages into the book change in the last few chapters.

It is in those concluding pages that we realize both Carl and Helen at one time had normal lives and solid relationships. We even get a touch of genuine sentimentalism from the characters.

Despite the now expected Palahniuk formula of unpredictability, Lullaby still stands on its own as an impressive piece of nonconformist fiction. In fact, its longing for normalcy may be the most shocking thing yet to come from a Palahniuk book.

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday. Hardcover $24.95. 256 pages.

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