Q&A with "Quality Lit Club" Outsider Jerry Stahl

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Jerry Stahl's first two books, Permanent Midnight and Perv?A Love Story are cult classics. In his latest, Plainclothes Naked (William Morrow, 326 pages, $25), he once again traffics in the expected disturbo drugged-out sex-driven insanity, swathed in breathtakingly beautiful language. Those of us who are hardcore Stahl fans know he will always mine the depth of his soul and imagination to deliver work that is as surreptitiously crafted and sculpted as any more celebrated mainstream literary star.

You often write about drugs, sex, violence and insanity. Should we read anything into that?

Write about what you know, right? It's not like you really have a choice about what comes out when you sit down to write. Subjects choose you. Emotions choose you. Scenarios choose you. For whatever reason, whether it's the life I've led or a batch of bastard neurons misfiring in my brainpan, so-called over-the-top stories and situations don't seem that over-the-top to me. You see enough extreme-o, eventually it doesn't seem so extreme. I'm not going to write novels about the American Family or young haircuts going to clubs and having sex-angst. Not that busloads of great books don't get written every year on those very subjects. Whenever I try to write quote-unquote normal stories, I sound more fucked-up than I ever could if I were actually trying to sound fucked-up. I remember this great line from Don DeLillo, I think it was Great Jones Street, where he talks about "the special grotesquerie of sane men leading normal lives." That is an epic statement.

Do you find the stuff you write about attracts a certain kind of audience?or keeps any certain audience away?

As for "a certain kind of audience," let's face it, it's not like some reader's going to be scratching his chin at Barnes & Noble, thinking, "Gee, do I go with that Oprah pick or do I get Jerry Stahl?" Gwyneth Paltrow will rim Dick Cheney in hell before Oprah gives me a call. My books have never even been reviewed in The New York Times, so if a reader comes to me, he or she has to do so without any encouragement from what Terry Southern used to call the "Quality Lit Club." I write about outsiders. I feel like an outsider. And, if the humans who approach me at readings or on the street or via e-mail are any indication, I'm read by outsiders. That doesn't mean they're flashing neck-ink and a decade of bondage work on their resume. Or not necessarily. It means, whatever they're doing?accountants or ax murderers or both?they feel that bone-deep alienation that can only be overcome with a spiritual awakening?generally involuntary?or hard narcotics.

Beyond that, a lot of musicians tell me my books are great "road books." Which is either a compliment or hugely devastating, depending.

Plainclothes Naked involves two crackheads who steal a photo of George W.'s testicles with a happy face tattooed on them. How did you come up with that?

It came to me in a dream. The next thing I knew I was naked and peeing on my shoes in Guam.

Actually, I have always had a fascination with George W. Bush. Guys like him are the Ultimate Other. That kind of madras-pants stress-free Daddy-bought-me-a-baseball-team lifestyle. A certain breed of dope fiend cultivates Bush-like guys, because they're the ones who always pay somebody else to score their drugs. They have no idea if they're being burned or not. They're too rich to care. They just give you the money, then you take off, buy $200 bucks worth of shit, do half yourself, cut the rest with Desenex and make up a story about how you nearly got killed copping the stuff so he'll want to give you something extra just for getting to hang around you. The truth is, just 'cause Daddy buys you a race car doesn't make you Richard Petty. But timing is everything. Who knew that by the time the book came out, George Junior would be hugely beloved, sporting heroic approval ratings and holding the very immediate fate of the free world in his soft little never-had-to-work-a-day hands? I guess you could say I'm riding the wave in the wrong direction.

We both had pretty demented childhoods, and I wondered if there were any writers who spoke to you, who maybe even saved your life?

Definitely. The first time I read Nathanael West changed everything. I couldn't believe he was saying what he was saying. That he was allowed to say what he was saying. I had the same feeling with Celine, and Terry Southern and William Burroughs and Ishmael Reed. Philip Roth. Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay Friedman and Flannery O'Connor, too. You could almost see the writer's maniacal glare behind every page. In the beginning it's about finding people who hate the same things you hate. Sometimes that's as close as you can get to love.

Speaking of love, you've described Plainclothes Naked as a love story.

At bottom, yes. Damage loves damage. I can't trust anyone who hasn't ridden his or her life off the rails once or twice. I can like them, I can enjoy them. But I can't get beyond the sense that, were I to really open up, really say what happened and how it was and how it felt, they would run away screaming or vomiting. In terms of writing, people who have been to where you've been, or in adjacent neighborhoods, will understand the humor that everybody else will find offensive or inappropriate. For better or worse, large parts of my life were offensive and inappropriate. When I think about them now, it's mortifying and entertaining at the same time. When you're there, you think that chaos and obsession are just what life is. Later on, you realize that chaos and obsession are what keep you from living it.

What are you working on now?

Philip Kaufman, who directed Quills and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, asked me to adapt a memoir for him to direct. It's called You Got Nothing Coming: Notes from a Prison Fish. The guy who wrote the book, Jimmy Lerner, is doing time for manslaughter in Nevada. Jimmy's a regular, Brooklyn-born Jewish suburban phone-company exec who, through a series of events, ended up killing a guy and getting stuck in a cell with a giant, Swastika-on-the-neck, Jew-hating white supremacist.

It's a comedy. At least I hope.

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