Medication Nation: Jerry Stahl and his new novel, "Happy Mutant Baby Pills"
By David BreithauptFebruary 17, 2014
JERRY STAHL CONTINUES his quest to examine the dark underbelly of medicated America with his latest novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, inspired in part by the experimental non-interferon treatment he underwent recently to cure his hepatitis and save his own life. Stahl’s noir comedy envelops a bevy of emotions and situations that point to the questionable direction our current society is heading. He is fluent in addictions, with a masters in tragic comedy. Stahl knows his subjects well, having painstakingly examined his own sordid history of heroin addiction in his acclaimed memoir, Permanent Midnight, and flushed out the ripple effects of such horror in his novels Pain Killers, I, Fatty, and Bad Sex on Speed. He can see the humor in the most doomed of circumstances, and this forte has allowed him to thrive and has inspired an army of growing fans. Happy Mutant Baby Pills tests the limits of the reader’s vulnerability and asks them to question their values. “Just how weird can you stand it brother, before your love will crack?” Ramparts Magazine editor Mike Lydon once asked his readers. Stahl’s characters can’t help but to find out.
Featured in Happy Mutant Baby Pills are Lloyd and Nora, a modern-day fun couple on opiates, connected by the randomness of destiny. Lloyd has a complicated resume. He is an ex-con, copywriter for pharmaceutical side effects inserts, a prose promoter for a Christian singles (Swingles!) dating service, and if that isn’t enough, a scriptwriter for television. Let me also add that he is a frequent user of heroin.
Now meet Nora. The two of them find each other on a Greyhound bus as Lloyd flees a pharmacy robbery gone bad. Nora, too, seems to be on the run, leaving an ex-paramour who was a high-ranking top dog in a major chemical company. Like Lloyd, Nora has a penchant for snappy taglines. She contributed a very successful one to her former beau’s company, for which she was never compensated. Nora, now pregnant by her unappreciative ex, is out to exact revenge, which let me warn you, is not pretty. She plans to give birth online, live, to a baby that will be born deformed due to all the chemical toxins inflicted on consumers by chemical companies like her old boyfriend’s. To ensure deformity, she subjects herself to a slew of poisons and drugs, purposely increasing the odds of a vastly deformed child. The process is hair-raising. You will have to see for yourself what is born in the end.
Along the way, Stahl uses Lloyd and Nora’s adventures to reveal what we are exposed to on a daily basis in terms of GMOs, microwaves, and dubious additives in our food and even furniture, and who we are as a medicated society. It is a call to arms as only Jerry Stahl can sound it. I chatted online with Stahl recently about the toxic world we live in, the ability of art to battle evil, the possibility of End Times, and how to celebrate the 100th birthday of William Burroughs.
How did you become part of an experimental non-interferon treatment program? It sounds risky not only to you but to those around you. Were you a human guinea pig?
Hepatitis C, as you know, is what junkies generally contract when they’re lucky enough not to get AIDS. It morphs to cirrhosis or cancer, as it did with the late Lou Reed. Basically I’d been dying for 20 years, but things finally reached critical mass and the doctor I went to said I had to either make a will or do something. But I’d known two people on interferon who killed themselves because it was so brutal, on top of which it had about a 40 percent success rate, so I slogged along with my wheatgrass, and juicing and living as healthy a life as a former neck shooter is capable of living. Then my doctor told me about this trial drug program Abbott pharmaceuticals was running out of Cedars-Sinai in LA. It was for my particular Genotype — Genotype 1 — which is the most interferon resistant. Long story short, I got in by the skin of my teeth. It involved taking about a dozen pills a day, sort of a variation on the AIDS cocktail with some secret liver-saving ingredient. The side effects, aside from itching and sleeplessness, were mostly of the mental variety. Not to get too technical, it felt like doing Bad Acid. And yet, in one week, my “viral load,” pardon the expression, dropped from 60 million (what one doctor I had referred to as “something out of Ray Bradbury”) to zero. It was a 12-week deal. After which, mysteriously, I remained virus-free — and continue to do so, nearly two years later. I still get blood drawn every few months — always a treat since I’ve got veins like Lincoln Logs, and the phlebotomist ends up playing Pin the Tail on the Forearm until she can connect. But what the hell, small price to pay … I never knew how sick I was until I got cured. The nurses actually refer to Hep C as “the asshole disease,” because everybody on it is so cranky and angry and miserable. Which — no excuses — is a direct result of feeling like you have a hangover every day, despite having not touched a drink or a shot in going on 20 years. A part of me could wallow in the fact that for most of my adult life I was either sick or strung out. But fuck that, I’ve been lucky enough to crash and burn and lose everything many years ago, which, with apologies to Ram Dass, I recommend to anyone as a real gratitude inducer.
Do you think this brush with toxicity provided the germ for writing Happy Mutant Baby Pills, in that you began to examine the onslaught of lesser-known but dangerous chemicals that we encounter daily?
On some level it did — inasmuch as what’s going on always has a way of leaking into a novel, at least in my life. Not to mention I was on these strange non-FDA-approved meds, trying to abolish the last fallout of junkiedom in my liver — Hep C, as mentioned — and basically felt like I was imbibing some nasty brand of mescaline on a daily basis — kind of sweating through the days, seeing tracers, imagining my dog was dissing me, like Son of Sam (minus the .44), and completely alone, as my girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife had to get out of Dodge to avoid contact with my birth defect–inducing skin or sweat. So yes — the idea that, hey, I’m doing this voluntarily — but 99 percent of the chemicals we consume we not only don’t know we’re consuming — we don’t know we’ve been exposed to it until whatever festive tumors, conditions, symptoms, or illness shows up down the road. Like Pain Killers, a novel in which I wanted to put across the unspeakable truth that, in fact, the Nazis won, and a large proportion of what they were trying to accomplish America has, in fact, done on its own — as well as the secret history of collaboration between American stalwarts like W’s granddad Prescott Bush and Kennedy’s dad, Joseph Kennedy, who were in fact colluding so much with the Germans they might as well have received the same Iron Cross that Hitler bestowed on American hero and world-class Jew-hater Henry Ford. I had information I wanted out there — but it was even more urgent, and the art of it is to construct a novel around this information. You don’t want to appear didactic or preachy, so you work at creating characters who put the truths forward in ways that don’t feel like an article in Mother Jones. Much as I love Mother Jones, a novel is a different beast, and sometimes you ride it, and sometimes it rides you. Of course, once I turned over that rock, the amount of truly savage and disturbing data I uncovered spurred me on even harder. Essentially, thanks to deregulation, the wholesale ownership of our government by big pharma, chemical companies, food processing plants, et cetera, America is committing a kind of slow-motion commercially driven genocide of its own population (check out the documentary Food, Inc.). The downside, of course, is that mainstream publications have not been rushing to embrace the book — as in no New York Times review, etc … But that is the trade-off you make (cultural gatekeeper-wise, I’m more of a fan of Vice, Tin House, The Rumpus, The Believer, Bomb, and their ilk anyway …). The main character in the book, Nora, is infused with the same passion that drives me to create her in the first place. That she is, on some level, a maniac may be a bit problematic. I am in awe of the Amy Goodmans and Jeremy Scahills and Dr. Helen Caldicotts of the world, who devote their lives to putting out the material our government essentially exists to suppress. But I chose a different delivery system. As Picasso once famously spewed, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.” (Or was he lying?)
Do you see your book as a modern version of Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary practices in the meat-packing industry?
Pharmaceuticals are a backdrop in my book — a chemical canvas against which my characters can parade their particular brand of sanity, or insanity, depending on who’s judging.
Upton Sinclair was a genuine muckraker — not to mention nearly becoming governor of California. To the extent I remember that book, it was about ripping the lid off the proverbial process of sausage-making, so to speak. I didn’t tackle the pill industry so much as how it impacts the people who consume its product, and the methods used to promulgate it. If Upton Sinclair had focused on meat-eaters, as opposed to the nauseating process of meat-packing and slaughterhouses, there would be more of a similarity. America The Medicated could stand as a summation of my novel — with a particular focus on two let’s just say ardent consumers of drugs and medication and the good folks whose second homes and stock options are contingent on Seroquel, Zyprexa, Singulair, Concerta, and other popular pharma-doodles continuing to be craved and consumed.
I liked what you said earlier about the political and sociological impact a novel can have versus articles in magazines such as Mother Jones. Do you think the advent of the internet has lessened the impact some books could have in this area?
No, it’s all entertainment: alternately enlightening, brain-deadening, informative, “important,” or trivial, depending on the content and your own value system. Impact is impossible to measure — short of a massive swelling, to misappropriate a phrase from the great Cintra Wilson, or actual rioting in the streets. Had someone read Happy Mutant Baby Pills and burned themself alive outside of Pfizer headquarters on E. 42nd Street, I might feel I’d accomplished something. Short of that, you’re glad if somebody laughs out loud, tells somebody else, or thinks of you before they gulp their next Celebrex. In any event, at this point it’s ludicrous to discriminate between “books” and “internet” because you can read books on the internet, or you can go old school and read the “hard copies” of actual magazines, the way you leaf through a five-year-old New Yorker in the proctologist’s office. The old paradigms, as they say, no longer apply. We’re all wired and buggable voluntary zombies now.
What the internet has perhaps engendered is a kind of righteous delusion: you can spend hours reading about “climate change” on your device of choice, and feel like you’re doing something to make the world better. In fact the contents of your computers are themselves gargantuan contributors to the destruction and poisoning of the environment: lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium — more heavy metal than a Dokken reunion. And we’re not even talking about Neodymium, or rare earth elements. Stuff that's brutal to mine, and is found in the same sites as uranium and thorium — so they don’t just kill the planet, they sicken and kill miners and eventually, us, thanks to their radioactivity.
The great news — 90 percent of these ingredients essential to keeping civilization running come from China! So there’s that. iPhones won’t work without the shit. Neither will a Prius. In other words, mention the internet, and I don’t think of its literary impact, I think of the cluster bombs disguised as yellow pudding cups dropped on our enemy the Afghans. Kids pick them up and get their arms blown off. (And, if you haven’t heard it, David Cross has an amazing routine on the subject.) This isnt some tangent. It just is. There are things in your iPhone and Prius that destroyed the people who had to dig them out of the ground. But the darn things won’t function without them. So yeah, whatever enlightenment the internet may engender, it’s built upon a foundation of destruction and toxicity about which consumers are blissfully unaware. In advertisement, Kindle and Android don’t mention the “slow genocide” aspect of their products’ ingredients. Then again, McDonalds doesn’t promote the feces in their burger meat …
In Laos, by the way, tens of millions of the cluster bombs America dropped in the 1970s are still buried under an inch of mud, disguised as little yellow toys. Eventually, they’re going to go off. And, in some heinous but more or less parallel way, so is our technology. I may be a cockeyed optimist, but still … The next time some douche on the airplane wants to talk about the whole books versus ebooks thing — mention Neodymium, and watch their eyes cloud over. We’re scrolling while Rome burns.
Short version: Do I think the advent of the internet has lessened the impact some books have in this area? I don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters. When Burroughs said, “language is a virus,” he had no idea how right he was.
Do you think the End Times are near? I sometimes feel like our generation will be the last to have a modicum of comfort. I picture something like Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic vision in his The Road coming to pass.
Near? I think they’ve been here, got depressed, and left already.
That said — on some conceptual/Uh-oh level, I don’t believe there is such a thing as End Time. “The bottom,” as Hubert Selby used to say, “is bottomless.” In other words, we’re just going to keep falling.
You mentioned Burroughs earlier; what are your plans to celebrate his upcoming 100th birthday?
Funny you should ask. I just got back from doing a gig at City Lights in San Francisco, where Peter Maravelis was nice enough to do a somewhat debauched cocktail party in honor of Happy Mutant Baby Pills. For my entire reading, I kept looking up at a beautiful poster on the wall. BURROUGHS AT 100. City Lights is doing a huge celebration, starting with his films. I don’t know if you’ve seen Burroughs’s movies: Towers Open Fire, The Cut-Ups, Billy & Tony. I won’t even attempt to describe them, but anyone wanting to see another side of Uncle Bill may want to track them down. It’s another dimension to the carnival-barker-by-way-of-Rimbaud-and-Herbert-Huncke to whom we usually genuflect. He also, as the City Lights poster says “recorded more CDs than most rock bands.” City Lights is doing a thing called AN ALGEBRA OF APOCALYPSE with, I believe, Jello Biafra, Daphne Gottlieb, and the legendary publisher V. Vale, among others.
There is no way of denying, when you step upstairs at City Lights — proverbial birthplace of the Beats — the hot, loaded-beyond-the-grave breath of Kerouac and Burroughs marinating your soul. Especially if you show up as the evening’s entertainment. Photos of Beats — along with other masters like Mayakovsky — are all over the walls above the shelves. So they do, in fact, appear to be staring down at you — in my case, in judgment, as I sat there spewing what it is I spew to the crowd on hand.
No matter what you do, you’re always going to be the opening act to William Burroughs.
Burroughs is one of those icons ... You don’t just love him, or his work — you love the idea of him. Think of the character he created. This perpetually older guy in a business suit and bank loan officer specs. With a voice like a St. Louis mortician on a methadone binge. Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon is no more noir than Burroughs was in everyday life. I had the honor of speaking to him once. Well, not really with him … When I was a kid at Columbia, for some reason I was backstage at a reading by Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky (who kept decrying the beer Burroughs was swilling by the can as “industrial drink”). A remark Burroughs assiduously ignored. Somebody’d left a car blocking an emergency entrance, an ambulance was trying to get out, or something … And for reasons I still don’t recall it fell to me to stumble on stage and tell one of the living legends on hand the situation, so that whoever owned the offending vehicle would move it. Before I could stop myself, I was in front of an SRO crowd howling to see the last Beat Giants roaming the earth, whispering in William Burroughs’s ear that he had to tell some clown to move his car. (I probably didn’t say that, I’m just trying to make myself look like less of an idiot now than I apparently was then.) Anyway, what I remember, leaning close to the great prognosticator’s ear, was how much the scowl on his pursed lips resembled that of Miss Ingrim, my fifth-grade teacher. After having some primitive 1960s treatment for breast cancer, she returned to the classroom with one arm — her right, I believe — as permanently thick as a hippo leg. Which made it hard to focus on the Scholastic Version of Moby Dick we were condemned to read. Somehow the skinny lady with one fat arm seemed like a character Burroughs would create. I also remember that Burroughs looked somewhat waxen, and — I may have dreamed this — appeared to have exceedingly soft, thin hair. Still, you didn’t look at William Burroughs and think “combover.” “Killer,” “Genius,” “Con-man’s Con-Man,” maybe. But not Rudy Giuliani Comb-over Guy. Just leaning over the man, a few inches from his scalp, I could feel the contempt-rays coming off him like steam heat. Never, before or since, have I really understood the meaning of the word “withering.” Not in the way he looked at me — but in the way he didn’t. He barely acknowledged me. But I took advantage of our shared moment to study him. His eyes were slightly watery. He cocked his head sideways, and I saw them staring off over the heads of the crowd, as if at some distant barbarism only he could see coming. I don’t know. But I do know you can’t think about the NSA, or any other specimen of contemporary government control, and not think of how Burroughs predicted it all — the US turned into a surveillance state, based on an endless irrational law enforcement obsession with sniffing out narcotics … One way or another, it all came true.
I don’t know if Burroughs is the kind of guy you celebrate. The word “festive” does not come to mind. You don’t actually “feel” Big Brother watching at this point. Surveillance has become like oxygen — a condition of life whether you like it or not. (Plus which, it’s not just Big Brother any more — it’s Big B and his 50 million cousins. Maybe 10 of whom you know. But they all know you. Plus everybody you’ve slept with, where you buy your toothpaste, and your questionable obsession with furry little owl videos.) I do sense the eyes of Burroughs peering down from whatever bunker he now inhabits. People call him “the original cult figure of the Beats.” I would just call him Saint Bill, and leave it at that.
I’m so glad your treatment worked and that you are feeling better. Is there anything outstanding on your event horizon?
Since you mention “horizon,” let’s just say I can see it now — and the abyss is getting pretty close. Given how dead I should have been, and how long ago, every day’s pretty much gravy. Writing is just what I do between lumps. I just did an episode for my friend Marc Maron’s show, Maron, on IFC. (Marc and I wrote a pilot together for HBO years ago, El Maron, which we turned in the very day the woman in charge of comedy at HBO, who gave us the gig, left her job. Timing is everything! But never mind …) I’m developing some stuff with Larry Charles, including a screenplay based on my novel Pain Killers, called Manny & Mengele, because nothing says comedy gold like a Josef Mengele buddy movie. But I’m a huge fan of Borat & Bruno — and the idea of using a novel as fodder for that kind of madness is too delicious to pass up. Charles is a subversive genius of a type you don’t meet too often anywhere — let alone working in Hollywood. Beyond that, Ben Stiller optioned Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Depp still owns I, Fatty, and I am still cranking out OG Dad Columns for The Rumpus (a collection will probably be out before the end of the year). But listen. I have no expectations, what-so-fucking-ever, with any of this. You do the work because you love the work … but I always, always, have to be working on a novel. That’s the one essential — the gravity that keeps the inside of my head from flying apart.
David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.
LARB Staff Recommendations
On the old story that we tell whenever someone dies this way....
Gilt and red plush. Rococo bar backed by pink shell. The air is cloyed with a sweet evil substance like decayed honey. Men and women in evening dress sip pousse-cafés through alabaster tubes. A Near East Mugwump sit naked on ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.