By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“It was for the Bicentennial. It was about a guy whose penis turned into George Washington’s head. Highbrow. Couldn’t be prouder of that one,” he laughs. “I just wrote all the time and lived this deluded, drug-addled life in a five-floor walkup with a bathroom down the hall.”
Stahl came to Los Angeles in the late ’70s when Hustler publisher Larry Flynt moved operations out here after he was shot and paralyzed. The job didn’t last long, but, as anyone who’s read Permanent Midnight knows, he found some bittersweet success in writing for television shows such as Thirtysomething, Moonlighting and Alf. He also wrote six unpublished novels and went deeper into drug addiction before finally getting clean. His memoir rose out of desperation.
“It was really a function of survival. I was having a hard time writing. I hadn’t written for a long time because of all the shit that is kind of associated with me and literally ran into someone on Hollywood Boulevard, Nancy Gottesman, who I’d known from Los Angeles magazine. I used to write a column for them . ... She said, ‘What the fuck happened to you?’ And, long story short, I ended up writing this thing called ‘Naked Brunch’ for LA Style and somehow an agent found it and after much shucking and jiving, I ended up getting a book deal.”
I ask if he found it ironic that his first major publishing success turned out to be a memoir.
“Totally ironic. I had spent my life using words to hide the truth. My novels were never about me. ... The idea of exposing emotions, pain, heart, in a personal way, was not in my repertoire.”
It is now. Underneath the wild satire and machine-gun fire humor, Stahl’s novels, especially Pain Killers, are full of the pain and pathos of characters confronting and often being overwhelmed by the indifference, at best, and cruelty, at worst, of life. Manny Rupert, for example, is struggling mightily despite his obvious personal disadvantages to adhere to his own ethics, mangled as they may be, in a country where complicity in such things as Mengele’s research at the Nazi death camps reaches to the highest levels of polite society, and where TV networks turn the travesty of our prison system into entertainment for the masses.
In many regards we live in an Orwellian fever dream and we barely stop to ponder this, let alone skewer it the way Stahl does. “I don’t know if they’re going to put me in the same rack as Noam Chomsky, but in my mind, it’s a political book,” Stahl says.
As we finish our lunch, I tenuously suggest to Stahl that he’s become a sort of éminence grise of L.A. letters, which, to me, signifies something far different and perhaps more interesting than it would in, say, New York.
“If that’s the case, nobody’s told me,” he laughs. “I haven’t seen the official notification of that, but thank you.”
More importantly, he says, “I got this kind of second chance and I want to do something with it. And on another level, writing’s easier than life.”
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