Katherine Dunn, the Portland author whose circus sideshow novel “Geek Love” was a touchstone for fans including singer Kurt Cobain and filmmaker Terry Gilliam, died Wednesday of complications from lung cancer at age 70.
“Geek Love” was published in 1989 and became a finalist for that year’s National Book Award. But that was only the formal recognition. Writing about the book in 2014 for Wired, Caitlin Roper noted that science fiction writer Harlan Ellison called the novel “transformative,” that actor and magician Harry Anderson optioned the film rights and wrote a movie script, and that the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea said the book was “life-changing.”
Despite putting into “Geek Love” people who appeared to live well outside the mainstream — a family of animal eroticists, a religious cult leader who has flippers instead of limbs, conjoined twins who play piano duets — Dunn told People magazine, “My characters’ stories are exactly the same as everyone else’s stories. … Every one of us is walking around with a hunchback albino dwarf somewhere inside.”
Dunn’s only child, Eli Dapolonia, 45, said his mother frequently received letters and email from people moved by “Geek Love” and her other writings. 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.”
Katherine Karen Dunn was born Oct. 24, 1945, in Garden City, Kansas, the fourth of five children, and moved to Tigard as a child. She graduated from Tigard High School and attended Portland State University and Reed College.
Following college, she published her first two novels, “Attic” (1970) and “Truck” (1971) while traveling in Europe. When she returned to Portland, with her son, she settled in the Northwest Portland neighborhood of Nob Hill, where she lived for the rest of her life. A single mother, she worked as a waitress, as a bartender and as a reporter covering boxing, an interest that came in handy one afternoon in 2009.
By then, Dunn, at 64, had spent more than a decade training at the Knott Street Boxing Club in Northeast Portland. As she walked home with a bag of groceries, someone yanked on her purse strap, spinning her around. Dunn told The Oregonian’s Andy Dworkin that after her 25-year-old attacker kicked and slapped her, she punched back. Her only regret? Her left hand was tangled in her purse strap, forcing her to lead with her right hand. “I would normally lead, as all good boxers do, with my left hand,” she said.
That same year, her writing about boxing was published in an anthology, “One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing.” She published a boxing book, “School of Hard Knocks: The Struggle for Survival in America’s Toughest Boxing Gyms,” that won the 2004 Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Award.
Dunn also wrote for numerous publications, including The Oregonian, Willamette Week, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Vogue and Playboy.
“She was our Mother Courage,” said The Oregonian’s longtime book critic Jeff Baker, a friend for nearly 30 years. “She was possibly the most generous person I’ve ever met. She was so helpful to anyone who needed help, period, in any walk of life.”
In addition to supporting writers and boxers, Dunn was a patron of the arts, Baker said. “She and I would go to the Laura Russo Gallery and she knew everyone’s work. I teased her once that she followed their careers like I follow the careers of baseball players.
“She was so knowledgeable. She was so smart about so many things,” he added.
Dapolonia said anyone wanting to know more about his mother has only to pick up one of her books. In addition to Dunn’s son, survivors include her husband, Paul Pomerantz, whom she first met at Reed College and with whom she was reunited in 2012.
The family suggests donations to National Public Radio.