LA People 2009: The Heart of Darkness Jerry Stahl
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.
“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.
“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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