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.
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.