Jerry Stahl’s body of work could be described as one long confession. His 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight, is a warts-and-all account of his years as a drug addict, and his debut novel of 1999, Perv — A Love Story, is a further exploration of themes of humiliation and degradation. Stahl‘s new novel, Plainclothes Naked, is a scatological romp through the white-trash America of grifters, drug addicts, corrupt cops and wrong women. It’s a raunchy book that once again lays bare the underbelly of Stahl‘s dark psyche.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1953, Stahl is the son of a poor Russian immigrant who worked his way up to a judgeship, then committed suicide in 1969. Stahl’s mother periodically underwent electroshock therapy throughout his childhood, and he has an older sister who‘s lived in Katmandu, Nepal, since 1976. Stahl began using drugs shortly before he was bar mitzvahed, and his drug use accelerated dramatically when he was 16 and was sent to an elite prep school outside Philadelphia. When he was 18, Stahl moved to New York, where he attended Columbia University before devoting himself full time to drugs. He supported himself during those years with various writing jobs. In 1979, he landed a gig with Hustler magazine that brought him to Los Angeles, where he spent the ’80s writing children‘s television while in a heroin fog. That experience provided much of the raw material for Permanent Midnight.
Stahl is presently writing the film adaptation of Jimmy Lerner’s recently published memoir, You Got Nothing Coming: Notes of a Prison Fish, for director Philip Kaufman. He also writes for the television series C.S.I. and is working on a book about Fatty Arbuckle, to be published by Bloomsbury Books. He lives in Silver Lake and has a 12-year-old daughter.
L.A. WEEKLY: You reveal yourself to an extraordinary degree in your writing. What compels you to share the most difficult parts of your life with the public?
JERRY STAHL: I don‘t feel like I’m sharing difficult parts of my life with the public. When you‘re pouring this stuff out at 4 in the morning, you’re not thinking about the public. Moreover, I never planned to make myself the subject of my writing. I wrote six novels nobody would publish before I wrote Permanent Midnight, and I never made a conscious decision to write a memoir. What happened was this: By 1990 I was in pretty bad shape, and one day I ran into an editor I knew who was working at L.A. Style magazine. When she saw me, she said, “What happened to you?” so I gave her a brief rundown, and she said, “You should write about this.” So I wrote a piece for L.A. Style, and that led to my getting an agent, a book deal, and eventually getting clean. That‘s how I wound up writing about myself.
The central figure in Plainclothes Naked, Manny Rubert, is a troubled character with a wounded but untainted heart, who’s struggling to stay off heroin. Am I correct in assuming this is the character you identify most closely with?
It‘s dangerous to say, “That character is me,” but yes, I do identify with him probably more than the other characters in the book.
Given that, it was a bold move for you to give him the physical peculiarity of being hugely overendowed.
I did that to mock that whole ethos. Here’s a guy who‘s massively endowed, and it drives him crazy because any woman who likes him for that reason is repulsive to him.
What were your intentions when you set out to write Plainclothes Naked?
People assume authors know what they’re doing when they sit down to write a book, but the reason I love writing novels is because you follow where they lead. I didn‘t know what my intentions were in the beginning, but I can tell you what the genesis of the book was. I’d been out of touch with my mother for 10 years, then last year I got a call that she was being thrown out of a rest home because of her bad attitude. So my sister flew in from Nepal, and she and I met in Pittsburgh to move my mother. I was only in Pittsburgh for a day, but spending even a few hours with this person who‘d completely dominated my psyche as a child — and in many ways was still cackling in the back of my head — was like walking into a force field I’d spent my life trying to forget. Shortly after I first entered her room, she looked at me, reared back and parted her legs, and in that moment my entire childhood hit me like a fist in the stomach. All those sense memories triggered by the texture of her nightgown, and the wafting gusts of momness that flew out of her bed, took me right back there. I didn‘t know she still had that power, but it was as if the black hole of my past had been opened up again, and the night I left Pittsburgh I sat down and this book started pouring out of me.
Did writing Plainclothes Naked help resolve your feelings about your mother?
Somewhat. Hubert Selby has this great saying that “The bottom is bottomless,” which is to say that you can exorcise 15 demons only to discover the 16th is the motherfucker that’s gonna kill you.
There‘s lots of toilet humor in the book, which includes frequent references to urination, ejaculation, menstruation, bleeding, vomiting, spitting and so forth. Why do you write such dirty stuff?
It’s probably from being a dope fiend. When you do drugs, you become deeply involved with bodily functions because you‘re always sweating or sick. I would add, however, that I don’t think bodily functions, sex or violence diminish beauty in any way — in fact, I think they enhance it because in the context of a depraved environment, beauty is even more powerful. This isn‘t a book about toilet humor. To me, it’s a love story about two people who transcend the squalor that surrounds them and get to whatever the other side of bitterness is. This book traffics in extremes, as does most of my writing, but in a world of violence, weirdness and addiction, true love ends up being the most extreme behavior of all. That‘s the theme of the book, and I knew when I was writing it that I was running the risk of readers getting hung up in the weirdness, but I couldn’t make the point I was trying to make without the violence.
In the book, a child has his foot ripped off, a woman is decapitated, a man is forced at gunpoint to sodomize his partner, and you play this violence for laughs. What‘s funny about those scenes?
I’ve lived through shit like that, and when you‘re in it, it’s horrific and nobody‘s laughing. But once the dust has settled and you’ve survived, you can‘t help but see the insane hilarity of it all. There’s no point in being reverent just because something bad has happened, and that doesn‘t mean you don’t have compassion for the people who‘ve suffered. I didn’t invent this vein of humor, by the way. Read Celine‘s Death on the Installment Plan — I’m a piker compared to Celine.
What was the first book that was important to you?
Nathanael West‘s Miss Lonelyhearts. Shortly after my father died, my sister’s hippie boyfriend gave me that book, along with books by Celine and Terry Southern, and I couldn‘t believe people were allowed to say those things in print. It meant so much to me because it so spoke to how I viewed the world as a 16-year-old — and probably still do, for better or for worse.
So what tradition do you see your work coming out of?
The writing that appeals to me is black humor. Almost all of Beckett, Nabokov’s Lolita, Joseph Heller‘s Something Happened, Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser, Bruce Jay Friedman, Ishmael Reed, Philip Roth in his Portnoy‘s Complaint period, Celine and Kafka. These guys write about the horrific nature of reality, and it comes out screamingly funny.
Drugs haven’t been part of your life for seven years, yet they continue to play a prominent role in your writing.
Drugs are a symptom of a level of torment that the kind of people I‘m interested in writing about are struggling with. I hadn’t planned on writing another drug book or another book about myself, and I created a large cast of fictional characters that includes a policeman, marauding crackheads, a transsexual and a murdering trailer-park woman. Still, at the end of the day there‘s probably more of me in this book than in all the other books combined.
Many of those characters seem to be driven by some combination of greed, sloth, lust and cowardice. Are these qualities you encounter in most people you meet?
I wouldn’t say most people are that way, but I also don‘t think the world is driven by purity and love.
Jerry Stahl reads from Plainclothes Naked at Book Soup on Tuesday, November 27, at 8 p.m.