By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Well, if you don’t have a book published until you’re 40 ...
“You were 42,” I correct.
“Okay, you know better than me. So much the better, so much the better,” he laughs. “I write like a man being chased.”
There’s plenty of real-life reason for Stahl to feel this way. His father killed himself when he was young, and his mother has battled severe depression most of her life. His self-inflicted, near-death experiences are well-documented. And then, there are the exigencies of middle age.
“My best friend right now, my oldest friend from high school, is dying. I just went to say goodbye to him. He had a melanoma that metastasized and went to his brain,” says Stahl. “It’s very sobering when you reach that age when suddenly people you went to high school with, you know, your asshole buddies from way back when are ... Everybody in my life has always died like that! (snaps his fingers). So this, somehow seeing all that is a motivation to either work really fast and do a lot or do nothing at all because of ... what the fuck? I just write fast because I’m running. ... I have a real sense of mortality and the fact that I kinda shouldn’t be here, you know?”
I first become aware of Stahl in the mid-’90s through a girlfriend who was rapt with his memoir, laughing and gasping in equal measures as she read. In the small-world department, turns out a dear friend happened to be his dear friend and suggested back then that I send a draft of a novel I was working on to Jerry. Why not? I thought, never expecting to hear anything back. Within two weeks I got an earnest and encouraging note back — the sort of thing that can keep an insecure, novice going. Those who know Jerry are used to such acts of generosity. If he can help a writer get an agent, a book deal or a blurb, he will. He’s also been known to host a Super Bowl party featuring copious amounts of Indian food and plenty of flatulent friends at his hilltop Mount Washington home.
More importantly, he’s taught creative writing at Sylmar Juvenile Hall, a real-world incarnation of something that’s obvious to anyone who’s read his books. Stahl has a soft spot for the long shot. He’s long been one himself. He grew up just a few miles and worlds away from where I did, outside of Pittsburgh. That’s not the most nurturing place for a budding intellectual, and the town where Stahl grew up, Brookline, is the kind of place that is euphemistically called working class. As a Jew in an oppressively Catholic ’hood, Stahl spent a good part of his childhood getting beat up for killing Christ. “I must have done it in blackout,” he jokes.
I ask how that experience informed his writing.
“It’s just that no-bullshit town. It’s not exactly like you feel any entitlement or superiority. I mean the word jag-off [one of Pittsburgh’s finer contributions to the language] says it all,” says Stahl. “It defines me because for many reasons I still feel like an outsider.”
Like many writers, Stahl came upon his craft by process of elimination.
“It was more about the things I knew I didn’t want to do. I would have loved to be a great rock & roll guitarist, but I kind of sucked. I just wanted a job that you could kind of do naked, fucked-up and alone at 3 a.m., and maybe get paid for,” he says. “Reading guys like Nathaniel West and all these guys who said shit I couldn’t believe people were allowed to say, Terry Southern and all those guys ... just did something for me. Writers are badasses to me. You know, Mailer, Pynchon, Tom Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor in her own weird way, they were just subversive individuals and that’s what I wanted. I knew I was never going to be in the gainfully employed world. Put it that way.”
After graduating from Columbia University, Stahl lived in New York City at the Columbus Circle YMCA, which at the time was a far cry from the polished YMCAs of today. He says he was “flailing miserably with some drug issues” while trying to scrabble together a living writing for publications such as The Village Voice, New York Press and Penthouse, for which he developed a knack for writing fake letters about zany erotic encounters.
“I was building up my résumé at Beaver and Club International, just to impress the NEA when I applied for those grants and didn’t get them years down the road,” he jokes. “Just scuffling.”
But the talent for outré fiction was always there. An early short story he submitted to Hustler was rejected before going on to win a prestigious Pushcart Prize.