Los Angeles Review of Books

Call me sentimental, there’s nothing but righteous heroin to compare with the rush I got just paddling around, newborn propped against my chest-pelt, feeling her 3:00a.m. screams calm to coos as I talked her through the late night heebie-jeebies …

 

AH, JERRY. We missed you.

A new Jerry Stahl book is always something to celebrate, and his latest is no exception. After a series of darkly comic novels (Pain Killers, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, and Bad Sex on Speed), Stahl returned to the grimy, confessional autobiographical style that he made his name with (via the cult classic Permanent Midnight). This time, however, he’s tackling a subject even more terrifying than copping on the street, hallucinating that furry aliens are clawing at your door, or crapping your pants during a cold turkey detox: fatherhood. OG Dad is told in a series of darkly comic vignettes, which decisively deliver a firm kick-in-the-bollocks to the mushy sentimentality that often plagues books on the joys of being a parent. For the uninitiated, OG Dad is a great place to enter the Stahl universe.

There’s no denying the man boasts a bloody impressive CV. As a memoirist, novelist, and screenwriter, his oeuvre contains more ups, downs, and neck-snapping WTF moments than a night spent shooting meth with a transsexual gangbanger. (I speak from experience.) During his storied career Stahl has written schlocky sitcom episodes (ALF), drug-drenched noir (Plainclothes Naked), emotionally charged historical drama (Hemingway & Gellhorn), classic junkie memoir (Permanent Midnight), and somehow found time to pen a mainstream action blockbuster (Bad Boys II). Along the way he has survived the kind of heroin habit that would have finished off multiple rock stars, had his life story portrayed onscreen by Ben Stiller, and (pseudonymously) written one of the touchstone movies of hardcore porn’s golden era (Café Flesh as “Herbert W. Day”). But as frankly insane as much of Stahl’s history has been, OG Dad tells us in no uncertain terms that none of it proved as daunting and scary as the prospect of his becoming a father in his fifth decade. The book’s subtitle says it all: Weird Shit Happens When You Don’t Die Young.

The whole Live Fast Die Young mentality is engrained in some of us; the kind of romantic fatalists who are attracted to heroin are especially drawn to it. But while many of my drug-taking contemporaries looked up to the likes of Sid Vicious or Jim Morrison, I was always more of a William Burroughs guy. You know, Live Fast, Die Really Fucking Old. Whether by intention or accident (the latter his appraisal), Stahl has also followed this path; thankfully dodging the reaper against some pretty long odds. Along the way he has written a series of books that make a strong case for Stahl as one of America’s best living writers. OG Dad is primo Stahl: his sense of bewilderment at not only making it to 50 but also becoming a father once more at this stage of his life has provided him with the material to turn out one of his very best, and funniest, books.

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I have a vivid memory of the first time I encountered Stahl’s writing. It was the late ’90s, and I was in East Hollywood waiting for Carlos, the enormous, constantly sweating Dominican with a wispy mustache and a penchant for violence who was my dope connection at the time. As usual the bastard was late, and I was flicking through a tattered copy of the LA Weekly in an effort to distract myself from the feeling that my guts were about to explode through my rectum at any moment. (The old cliché about the terminally late heroin dealer is no myth. During the years I was actively using I never met a punctual smack dealer. But, I digress; and as long as I’m digressing, I actually lost my Stahl-virginity, without knowing it, by watching Café Flesh at the tail end of a house party in LA sometime in the mid-1990s. I don’t remember too much about the movie: I was 18, I had just stolen and eaten so many Quaaludes that I passed out face-first into a goth girl’s freshly microwaved burrito, receiving a nasty burn in the process. I told Jerry that story when I met him for the first time. When I was done he nodded and said: “Well, it happens.”)

It must have been February, because the Weekly was doing a love-themed issue in tribute to Valentine’s Day. There — nestled in amongst the grainy ads for dominatrixes, transsexuals, and jailbait Russian whores — was a story of Stahl’s that seemed to reach right up out of the pages and grab me by the throat. It was an (I’m guessing) autobiographical story about the teenage Stahl losing his virginity in a suburban gangbang. It was a fantastic piece of writing. I knew straight away that Stahl was one of those rare Special Ones: you know, the ones who don’t fuck around and really get down and dirty on the page. He wrote like a vicious-but-graceful prizefighter. It was one of those stories that managed to stir up such a complex brew of emotions that by the time I was done I didn’t know whether to feel revolted, elated, or some sickly combination of the two. I remember rereading it a couple of times, trying to figure out how he had managed to turn what was a pretty sordid anecdote into something that felt so vivid, subversive, and poetic.

OG Dad, like Stahl’s best work, manages to balance the obscene, the funny, and the touching perfectly — here he expertly keeps all the plates spinning without letting a single one hit the dirt. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and one that is belied by Stahl’s easygoing, almost conversational style. If fatherhood has softened the man who was once Hollywood’s most righteous screenwriting dope fiend, it definitely hasn’t blunted his mastery of the one-liner. Anyone who has seen the “miracle of birth” up close will surely relate to his description of it as “H.P. Lovecraft meets the Marquis de Sade, by way of the Discovery Channel.”

The book follows the story of Stahl becoming a father, starting 39 weeks into his partner’s pregnancy (he describes feeling the baby kick as “like touching a weasel trapped in a water balloon”) right up to the two-year mark, each step of the way turning the minutiae of having a newborn child into a series of stories that are truly weird in the way that only reality can be.

Stahl has had one of those Halley’s Comet–type careers: he is usually way out there in the cosmos, but once in a while his books will careen into the mainstream. He definitely doesn’t seem to write with “salability” or “the market” in mind. Hell, any writer who does pumps only faux literary sewage. But sometimes, with bills to pay and publishers seemingly growing more conservative by the day, it certainly is temping for an author who writes the, let’s say, “edgier” stuff, to decide to rein it in, just a little … Looking over Stahl’s eight preceding books, it’s obvious that when it comes to mainstream acceptance he truly doesn’t give a fuck. Let’s face it, nobody ever thought they were going to get a blessing from Oprah or a glittering review from Michiko Kakutani writing a gonzo-noir about crackheads stealing a picture of George W. Bush’s cock (Plainclothes Naked), or a comic novel about an ex-junkie private dick going undercover in a California prison to see if an aged inmate is actually Josef Mengele (Pain Killers). In this age when many artists — and society in general — seem to be getting more and more straitlaced, it’s an attitude that makes this particular writer dig Stahl even more.

But as I said, regardless of his punkish disregard for the sensibilities of the mainstream, Stahl’s particular obsessions seem to veer into commercial territory semi-regularly. For evidence of this just look at the massive success of Midnight or I, Fatty — his disarmingly sensitive retelling of the Fatty Arbuckle legend, which remains under option by Johnny Depp’s production company and won some of the best reviews of his career. With OG Dad it feels like he could well gate-crash the party again, and in the process find a whole new audience for his work.

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The whole Junkie Writer ™ mantle can be a double-edged sword. As far as junkie memoirs go, Permanent Midnight is still one of the absolute best — up there with Burroughs’s Junky and Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries. But for many of the memoirists who plumb these particular depths there can be no second act. Some of them — like Eddie Little, Alexander Trocchi, or James Fogel — succumb to their demons. Others find that they have nothing more to say. After all, most authors of typical Junkie Lit are not products of writing schools or MFA programs: it’s a genre that could be seen as a kind of outsider art, or literature-as-primal-scream-therapy. Once all of the awful details have been vomited up and turned into violent poetry there’s often no need to carry on. The move from writing about your own demons and writing about other people’s is a tricky one, and plenty of memoirists have tripped over their own feet trying. But Stahl — who had honed his writing skills in the hothouse atmosphere of churning out porno stories for men’s magazines and sitcom scripts in LaLaLand — is something of a different animal from the typical junkie memoirist.

As salacious and fun as his fiction is, Stahl’s return to memoir is welcome: cracking the pages of his latest is a little like settling down and catching up with a long-lost friend. You don’t have to have had a child in your autumn years or be an ex-dope fiend to relate to Stahl’s tales of paternal anxiety and joy: the fears and emotions he expresses are pretty universal. When he talks about the bond between father and child, there’s a sweet tenderness to the writing that you might not expect from the man who wrote Bad Sex on Speed.

The whole “better than Burroughs” quote that has followed Stahl around since Midnight is both a blessing and a curse — while it might be true enough, given his virtuosity, it also pigeonholes him into the “junkie writer” ghetto, a place that every single one of us who have written a work of “Drug Lit” have had to fight our way out of. Whether talking about dope or kids, Stahl is a master storyteller, and in that regard, if we’re going to compare him to a Beat writer, I would say he has more of a natural affinity to Herbert Huncke than William Burroughs. Whereas Burroughs could be inscrutable and aloof, Huncke’s work was warm and funny, and he definitely had a hustler’s flair for hooking the listener in with a single sentence. Sound familiar?

Just like Huncke, Stahl’s best work is rooted in the comic underbelly of day-to-day existence. He can take a fairly ordinary scene and wring unexpected moments of sly humor and unexpected darkness out of it with ease. In this regard, OG Dad is prime Jerry Stahl, a great addition to his canon, and the work of a writer who is absolutely on top of his game.

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Tony O’Neill is a novelist and musician living in New York.

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