By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Jerry Stahl’s body of work could be described as one long confession. His 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight, is a warts-and-all account of his years as a drug addict, and his debut novel of 1999, Perv -- A Love Story, is a further exploration of themes of humiliation and degradation. Stahl‘s new novel, Plainclothes Naked, is a scatological romp through the white-trash America of grifters, drug addicts, corrupt cops and wrong women. It’s a raunchy book that once again lays bare the underbelly of Stahl‘s dark psyche.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1953, Stahl is the son of a poor Russian immigrant who worked his way up to a judgeship, then committed suicide in 1969. Stahl’s mother periodically underwent electroshock therapy throughout his childhood, and he has an older sister who‘s lived in Katmandu, Nepal, since 1976. Stahl began using drugs shortly before he was bar mitzvahed, and his drug use accelerated dramatically when he was 16 and was sent to an elite prep school outside Philadelphia. When he was 18, Stahl moved to New York, where he attended Columbia University before devoting himself full time to drugs. He supported himself during those years with various writing jobs. In 1979, he landed a gig with Hustler magazine that brought him to Los Angeles, where he spent the ’80s writing children‘s television while in a heroin fog. That experience provided much of the raw material for Permanent Midnight.
Stahl is presently writing the film adaptation of Jimmy Lerner’s recently published memoir, You Got Nothing Coming: Notes of a Prison Fish, for director Philip Kaufman. He also writes for the television series C.S.I. and is working on a book about Fatty Arbuckle, to be published by Bloomsbury Books. He lives in Silver Lake and has a 12-year-old daughter.
L.A. WEEKLY: You reveal yourself to an extraordinary degree in your writing. What compels you to share the most difficult parts of your life with the public?
JERRY STAHL: I don‘t feel like I’m sharing difficult parts of my life with the public. When you‘re pouring this stuff out at 4 in the morning, you’re not thinking about the public. Moreover, I never planned to make myself the subject of my writing. I wrote six novels nobody would publish before I wrote Permanent Midnight, and I never made a conscious decision to write a memoir. What happened was this: By 1990 I was in pretty bad shape, and one day I ran into an editor I knew who was working at L.A. Style magazine. When she saw me, she said, “What happened to you?” so I gave her a brief rundown, and she said, “You should write about this.” So I wrote a piece for L.A. Style, and that led to my getting an agent, a book deal, and eventually getting clean. That‘s how I wound up writing about myself.
The central figure in Plainclothes Naked, Manny Rubert, is a troubled character with a wounded but untainted heart, who’s struggling to stay off heroin. Am I correct in assuming this is the character you identify most closely with?
It‘s dangerous to say, “That character is me,” but yes, I do identify with him probably more than the other characters in the book.
Given that, it was a bold move for you to give him the physical peculiarity of being hugely overendowed.
I did that to mock that whole ethos. Here’s a guy who‘s massively endowed, and it drives him crazy because any woman who likes him for that reason is repulsive to him.
What were your intentions when you set out to write Plainclothes Naked?
People assume authors know what they’re doing when they sit down to write a book, but the reason I love writing novels is because you follow where they lead. I didn‘t know what my intentions were in the beginning, but I can tell you what the genesis of the book was. I’d been out of touch with my mother for 10 years, then last year I got a call that she was being thrown out of a rest home because of her bad attitude. So my sister flew in from Nepal, and she and I met in Pittsburgh to move my mother. I was only in Pittsburgh for a day, but spending even a few hours with this person who‘d completely dominated my psyche as a child -- and in many ways was still cackling in the back of my head -- was like walking into a force field I’d spent my life trying to forget. Shortly after I first entered her room, she looked at me, reared back and parted her legs, and in that moment my entire childhood hit me like a fist in the stomach. All those sense memories triggered by the texture of her nightgown, and the wafting gusts of momness that flew out of her bed, took me right back there. I didn‘t know she still had that power, but it was as if the black hole of my past had been opened up again, and the night I left Pittsburgh I sat down and this book started pouring out of me.