LA People 2009: The Heart of Darkness — Jerry Stahl 

Wednesday, Apr 22 2009

I’m deep into a harrowing Diane Sawyer special about hillbillies in Kentucky (a cautionary tale about the pre- and post-natal effects of Mountain Dew if ever there was one) on a cold and stormy night in early March, when something slams into my front door, causing me to jump off the couch.

Opening the door, I spy an anonymous brown package on the porch. Inside is the novel, Pain Killers. It is signed To my friend, Joe, Jew for a day — Jerry. Armed with his fourth novel since his breakthrough book, the memoir Permanent Midnight, Jerry Stahl has, in his own inimitable fashion, done a drive-by.

Pain Killers continues the adventures of Manny Rupert, the hapless, hopelessly romantic (in his own damaged way) cop-cum-detective we got to know and love in Plain Clothes Naked. This time a septuagenarian, Jewish millionaire named Harry Zell, who wields his walker like a shillelagh, enlists Manny to go undercover as a drug counselor at San Quentin. Rupert’s mission it to determine if a certain peroxide-blond, 97-year-old inmate is in fact none other than the Nazi Angel of Death, Dr. Joseph Mengele. As if that isn’t nettlesome enough for the illicit substance–susceptible sleuth, his first night on campus reveals his ex-wife and love of his life (who offed her first husband in Plain Clothes Naked by serving him a bowl of Drano-and-glass-laced Lucky Charms) has taken up with the leader of the prison’s Aryan gang ... who happens to be Jewish.

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON - Jerry Stahl

Related Stories

  • Farenheit 420

    Tonight's soiree is sort of like any other festival after-party -- except it starts at dinnertime and the VIP list is all … writers. A benefit for the L.A. Public Library's Young Literati (a smart and stylish group of super-supportive book lovers), the Book Drop BASH combines reading, mingling, music...
  • Jerry Stahl Discusses His New Book About Heroin, the Drug That Nearly Destroyed Him

    Jerry Stahl knows heroin — the good, the bad and the literary. That's why Stahl was the perfect choice to be editor of The Heroin Chronicles, an anthology of 13 chasing-the-dragon stories by junkies and ex-junkies. Released Jan. 1, the third entry in the Akashic Drug Chronicles Series (after The...
  • Not Your Parish Fish Fry

    For the last year or so, longtime Los Angeles merchant Billy Shire has been presenting a "21st-century salon" at his monthly Thursday Night Fish Fry & Community Social, featuring poetry, performances and music. The 14th edition, "The Literary Event," promises memorably unhinged prose to boot. It's spearheaded by badass tattoo...
  • The Pen Is Mightier

    Without the struggle to bring banned books to the world, this weekly would not be able to print the following words — tits, cock-and-balls, menstruation. Without Lawrence Ferlinghetti's fight in the Supreme Court over the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Family Guy probably wouldn't be able to show Peter and...
  • The Moth's Experts Share the Secrets to Successful Storytelling

    The key to quality storytelling isn't necessarily to be funny. At least that's what some of the folks lined up to participate in The Moth Mainstage event Rush: Stories of Ticking Clocks at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday, March 1, are probably hoping is true. In addition to host Rudy...

How’s that for a setup?

Sitting there with his big, brazen new novel freshly hurtled into my living room, I got to thinking about Jerry Stahl and how, in a fashion that’s so typically Los Angeles, it may be lost on some of us what a treasure we have in him. To his friends, he’s a quick-witted curmudgeon who hides his bleeding humanity behind a gruff demeanor, black leather jacket, and a self-deprecating joke. To critics he’s either “a better-than-Burroughs virtuoso” as The New Yorker once described him, or someone whose brash style, transgressive compulsions and unnerving thematic content is a source of visceral discomfort. He’s been called the dark prince of literature, and his style has been dubbed gonzo noir.

But that’s just lazy labeling. The truth is that Stahl brings a surprising empathy and a sharp social critic’s eye to bear in his examinations of marginal characters and American dysfunction. Sitting with him at Vic’s, he tells me about the inspiration for his latest.

“It came from the rage of living in a country where Bush was doing all this insane stuff in our name and that somehow metastasized into writing about the link between America and the Nazis and how we were still killing people who were considered less valuable than us because they were nonwhite and in some way that folded into the Nazis and Mengele, and I married that into this obsession ....It’s that fact that this prison porn, it’s fascinating,” he says. “Everyone thinks [MSNBC] is Rachel Maddow and Matthews and Olbermann, but what it really is, is some guy named Pepe who’s been in this shoe in Pelican Bay and is now on TV making gang signs.”

How pop culture melds with the unseemly underbelly of our society is a topic ripe for thesis papers. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Stahl tackling such themes so starkly and so entertainingly at the same time. Pain Killers is both in your face and subtle at the same time. It’s the work of live-wire mind, one I’ve gotten to know and appreciate over the years.

As we sit for lunch — and at Jerry’s request I’ll spare the rote atmospherics, except to say that as princes of darkness go, Stahl is one handsome fella, who is quick to laugh and poke fun at himself — his book is just out in the world receiving the wild mix of raves and repulsion that accompanies a Jerry Stahl novel. I ask how’s he’s feeling about it all.

“There’s no silence like the great roaring silence after a book comes out,” he says. “Like, you write the book and the beautiful heartbreak begins. I’m just glad it came out, man.”

They keep coming out. Pain Killers is his fourth novel in the past decade. There’s also been Love Without, a celebrated 2007 collection of short stories (one of which, “Li’l Dickens,” detailing a strange encounter with a not-so-closeted Dick Cheney, debuted in L.A. Weekly). Prolific for any writer, even if he isn’t also writing for film, television, on various essays and nonfiction, and a hilarious blog called Post-Young, which looks at the world from the jaundiced eye of an aging hipster.

I wonder what keeps him so committed, especially considering writing novels these days can so often seem like an exercise in masochism or martyrdom.

Related Content


  • Onch Movement for Hello Kitty Jewelry Launch @ JapanLA
    Hello Kitty and designer Onch Movement collaborated on a new line of jewelry just in time for the holiday season. The launch party and trunk show showcased a limited number of pieces for purchase and gave fans a preview opportunity to try the collection on for size. The event also featured art work by Malcolm Stuart, The Pocky truck and a visit from Hello Kitty, who stopped by for photo opps. The limited edition Onch Movement for Hello Kitty jewelry collection is available exclusively at Sanrio.com starting November 20. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.

    See also: Lina in L.A.- All Aboard EVA Air's Hello Kitty Jet!
  • WeHo Gogo Appreciation Day
    West Hollywood paid tribute to the male gogo dancer with a little friendly competition Saturday night in Boystown, featuring plenty of pecs and very little clothing. All photos by Matt Baume.
  • Lina In L.A.- FROCK YEAH at FYF Fest!
    Dressing practical didn't mean plain at this year's FYF Fest. The hot and dirty grounds brought out bandannas, combat boots, and loose get-ups, from overalls to sundresses. Knee socks, DIY denim, colorful hair, band and statement tees and still-bold boho accessories made for a style mix that meshed multiple eras, though grungy '90s statements rocked loudest!