How appropriate that Chuck Palahniuk should declare on the cover of Craig Clevenger's debut novel that it is the best book he has read in the past decade, as The Contortionist's Handbook brings to mind Palahniuk's most famous work, Fight Club.

Like Fight Club's unnamed narrator — played by Edward Norton in David Fincher's film adaptation — John Dolan Vincent, Clevenger's main protagonist, obsessively makes lists and has an addiction to all manner of legal and illegal substances.

Both characters also suffer from acute identity crisis, although in Vincent's case, it is self-inflicted. An expert forger, he vacillates between different identities, which is where the contortionist angle comes in, except that he bends his persona — not his limbs — into various unnatural shapes.

"Told a girl once I wanted to be a contortionist — I can't explain it, but that seems closer to what I do than anything else."

Clevenger also contorts his plot in sudden, unpredictable directions as Vincent's world closes in around him. He regularly overdoses after self-medicating to ward off severe migraines. He then has to use all his wits and grifter skills to convince a psychiatrist that he is not suicidal and is fit to be released.

As the book opens, Vincent appears to have met his match in psychiatric assessor Richard Carlisle, who probes deeper than expected into his murky, fabricated past. Meanwhile, Vincent's criminal underworld contacts are closing in on him and it eventually emerges that the player may well have been played himself.

The Contortionist's Handbook is an enthralling, densely-written read, which packs a lot into its mere 200 pages and it will surely go on to enjoy similar cult status to Fight Club.

Apart from Palahniuk, Clavenger also owes a debt to David Mamet's more genre-oriented films, such as House of Games, and his depiction of a vast, sprawling, crime-ridden Los Angeles is reminiscent of another cinematic identity twister, Christopher Nolan's Memento. All of which bodes well for when The Contortionist's Handbook is inevitably adapted for the silver screen, which — as the rights to do so have been snapped up by Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly — will be sooner rather than later.

* Stephen Jewell is an Auckland-based journalist.
* Fourth Estate, $34.99