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
Did writing Plainclothes Naked help resolve your feelings about your mother?
Somewhat. Hubert Selby has this great saying that “The bottom is bottomless,” which is to say that you can exorcise 15 demons only to discover the 16th is the motherfucker that’s gonna kill you.
There‘s lots of toilet humor in the book, which includes frequent references to urination, ejaculation, menstruation, bleeding, vomiting, spitting and so forth. Why do you write such dirty stuff?
It’s probably from being a dope fiend. When you do drugs, you become deeply involved with bodily functions because you‘re always sweating or sick. I would add, however, that I don’t think bodily functions, sex or violence diminish beauty in any way -- in fact, I think they enhance it because in the context of a depraved environment, beauty is even more powerful. This isn‘t a book about toilet humor. To me, it’s a love story about two people who transcend the squalor that surrounds them and get to whatever the other side of bitterness is. This book traffics in extremes, as does most of my writing, but in a world of violence, weirdness and addiction, true love ends up being the most extreme behavior of all. That‘s the theme of the book, and I knew when I was writing it that I was running the risk of readers getting hung up in the weirdness, but I couldn’t make the point I was trying to make without the violence.
In the book, a child has his foot ripped off, a woman is decapitated, a man is forced at gunpoint to sodomize his partner, and you play this violence for laughs. What‘s funny about those scenes?
I’ve lived through shit like that, and when you‘re in it, it’s horrific and nobody‘s laughing. But once the dust has settled and you’ve survived, you can‘t help but see the insane hilarity of it all. There’s no point in being reverent just because something bad has happened, and that doesn‘t mean you don’t have compassion for the people who‘ve suffered. I didn’t invent this vein of humor, by the way. Read Celine‘s Death on the Installment Plan -- I’m a piker compared to Celine.
What was the first book that was important to you?
Nathanael West‘s Miss Lonelyhearts. Shortly after my father died, my sister’s hippie boyfriend gave me that book, along with books by Celine and Terry Southern, and I couldn‘t believe people were allowed to say those things in print. It meant so much to me because it so spoke to how I viewed the world as a 16-year-old -- and probably still do, for better or for worse.
So what tradition do you see your work coming out of?
The writing that appeals to me is black humor. Almost all of Beckett, Nabokov’s Lolita, Joseph Heller‘s Something Happened, Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser, Bruce Jay Friedman, Ishmael Reed, Philip Roth in his Portnoy‘s Complaint period, Celine and Kafka. These guys write about the horrific nature of reality, and it comes out screamingly funny.
Drugs haven’t been part of your life for seven years, yet they continue to play a prominent role in your writing.
Drugs are a symptom of a level of torment that the kind of people I‘m interested in writing about are struggling with. I hadn’t planned on writing another drug book or another book about myself, and I created a large cast of fictional characters that includes a policeman, marauding crackheads, a transsexual and a murdering trailer-park woman. Still, at the end of the day there‘s probably more of me in this book than in all the other books combined.
Many of those characters seem to be driven by some combination of greed, sloth, lust and cowardice. Are these qualities you encounter in most people you meet?
I wouldn’t say most people are that way, but I also don‘t think the world is driven by purity and love.
Jerry Stahl reads from Plainclothes Naked at Book Soup on Tuesday, November 27, at 8 p.m.