THOMAS DE QUINCY, best known for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), wrote that “even imperfection itself may have its ideal or perfect state.” It’s a line that may best describe the life and work of Jerry Stahl, who still amazes us with the tumultuous route his days continue to take. His memoir, Permanent Midnight, describes his resurrection from a life of addiction to heroin, the aftermath of which left him with a strain of hepatitis that threatened his life in later years. An experimental treatment for his condition left him so temporarily toxic that he had to live separately from his then-pregnant girlfriend.
But it worked. Stahl beat the odds and survived to see the birth of his second daughter as he approached his late 50s. Finding himself in the realm of fatherhood once again, he describes his reestablished role in his new book, his ninth, OG Dad: Weird Shit Happens When You Don’t Die Young. OG (old guy) Dad is a series of columns written for the literary site The Rumpus with new material added. Stahl charts his anxiety, bliss, and fear as his newborn enters a world whose future has become increasingly uncertain in the wake of mounting environmental disasters. His previous novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, could be a bible for toxic mishaps (not for the squeamish). As Hunter Thompson once remarked, “we bought the ticket, now take the ride.”
We have known each other for some years, and we conversed online recently about fatherhood in post-young years, his literary career, toxicity in everyday life, and what the odds might be for survival in the next few years. “All sins tend to be addictive,” W. H. Auden wrote, “and the terminal point of addiction is damnation.” Feel free to join us in hell.
DAVID BREITHAUPT: You have a varied literary apprenticeship, having worked for Larry Flynt’s Hustler Magazine and also, if I recall, Penthouse Magazine. You went on to write for television including your contribution to Alf. I am wondering: at what pivotal moment did you decide to start writing books?
JERRY STAHL: I was always writing books. I wrote my first book at 19. The employment examples you cite were a few among many, more journalism than sex-related — though reviewers and interviewers tend to focus on the sex-related material. (In much the same way they obsess on Alf, though that too was a relatively tiny part of the grand, weird arc of my writing.)
As far as apprenticeship goes, I started writing for a free weekly in Santa Cruz when I was 20, and did more journalism in NYC in my early 20s, at the New York Press and The Village Voice. My first piece was about confession magazines. That was memorable because, while riding down in an elevator, I happened to be standing next to an editor I recognized from the confession mag where I’d just done an interview, where I heard her say, “The only difference between our readers and Newsweek’s is that our readers have an IQ over 70.” I proceeded to quote her, without telling her I was going to do so. I don’t think she even knew I was on the elevator.
After the piece came out, the editor and The Village Voice were not thrilled, and I had to call up and apologize. Which I did. Pleading youth and idiocy, in no particular order. The woman was remarkably cool about it, but it was my first, and possibly last, lesson in journalistic ethics.
All of which I mention because those “real-life” writing gigs ran on a kind of bent parallel track to the literary work I was trying to do. Case in point. I’d done a couple of interviews for the prestigious literary magazine Transatlantic Review — with my author-idol at the time, Bruce Jay Friedman (whose style I copied slavishly for years), and with since-deceased author Marco Vassi, who in the ’70s was proudly bisexual and in the vanguard of New York “transgressive” writing. Though I don’t know if the word was in vogue yet, and still vaguely want to yawn when I hear it. (It’s right up there with “edgy” and “disruptive” as a yawn-inducer.) If anybody tells you they’re “looking for something edgy,” run the other way …
Anyway, this was around the time of the Bicentennial, and I wrote a story called “Return of the General,” about a man whose penis turns into George Washington. The story got rejected at Hustler, but accepted by Transatlantic Review, where it won their “Erotic Fiction” award. (Runner up, as I recall, was Frederick Barthelme, one of my favorite writers.) From there the story went on to win a Pushcart Prize, which I had never heard of at the time but turned out, apparently, to mean something.
Along with stints as porn dog and sitcom guy, among other things, I worked as a Fuller Brush Man, foot messenger, in the mailroom at Redbook, in a copy shop (remember copy shops, where people came to use the Xerox machines?), and at a variety of others, scraping by in NYC kinds of gigs. I began to write porn stories at various magazines like Beaver and Club International around this time, and to write fake sex letters for Penthouse Forum, because I just wanted to make a living writing, come proverbial hell or high water. I did what I had to do. I wasn’t the kind of guy who won grants, because I wasn’t together enough to even know how to apply for them. (Years later some Guggenheim winner suggested me for a Guggenheim, and when I saw the forms, all the detailed questions about my CV, etc., I just threw it away. The life I lived, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I moved so many times I barely knew my own address.) At the same time as all this wondrous and assorted employment was happening, I was also writing the first or second of my soon-to-be-never-published novels, and getting my first short fiction in a little literary magazine out of California called Quarry West. The editor was a guy named Lou Matthews, to whom I pretty much owe everything. I don’t know if I’d have gotten into print without him. I got his name from Raymond Carver, who was an instructor at Goddard, where I got one of those you-only-have-to-go-school-ten-days-twice-a-year MFAs in creative writing. Richard Ford and the Wolff Brothers, Tobias and Geoffrey, also taught there, and both the Wolffs helped me immensely with that early fiction.
But back to your question. All I ever wanted to do was write books, the things I had to do to support that habit — that’s a whole other story. A lot of stories.
When I was a kid and read the Penthouse Forum letters I thought they were sent in by real people, but I found out you wrote many of them. That kind of weirded me out.
Kid, really? Where were your parents when you were coming home from third grade and having an afterschool Ding Dong while reading Penthouse perv-mail?
I can understand you feeling shattered to know that, in May 1987, “Herb from Sioux Falls” didn’t really write to inquire about his girlfriend’s clown obsession. Clown sex can be alarming at any age. (It’s the feet, Dave, clown feet can exercise a deep and entrancing power over those susceptible to their allure. You can pick your friends, can’t pick your fetish.) Beyond this, finding out that “Herb,” himself, was a hoax, and worse, that a personal friend of yours, in an earlier life, labored as a faux sex expert — generating and responding to his own arcane sex-related dilemmas and situations — well, what can I say … I hate myself all over the place.
Many men, and it sounds like you were one of them, learned the sexual ropes (so to speak) from those Penthouse Forum letters. And now that you know they were cranked out by some creepy, unlaid drug-toad holed up and alone at 4 a.m. in a five-floor walk-up, there’s bound to be some psychic fallout.
Those were strange years — years of literary gestation, trying simultaneously to write novels and cutting my teeth on boner prose for the Beavers and Club Internationals of this world. I’m a Swank graduate. I wrote “girl copy” for Chic. I made vaginally shaped rutabaga jokes when I labored in the humor wing of Hustler Magazine. I wrote the ads for a variety of marital aid products. (I’m not saying it’s Yeats-like, but banging out double dildo promos does require a poesy-adjacent muscle or two.) And no, thanks for asking, I can not pretend this CV packs the same prestige as an MFA from Iowa. I get it. But I like to think of it as a kind of bent apprenticeship.
Jonathan Franzen probably never wrote a scrotum joke. But that’s no reason not to like him.
Thanks for that education. That’s why I am a healthy adult male now, but let’s move on to prison. You once mentioned you did some teaching work with inmates at San Quentin. Could you talk a little about that?
Yes, I was asked by the late Bruce Sinofsky, who directed Paradise Lost and the other Memphis Three movies, along with a number of other documentaries, to participate in a program called San Quentin Film School. This gave me the opportunity to visit the institution and impart what knowledge I have on the subject of telling the story of your own life. I have no idea how much they got out of it. But for me, meeting these guys — witnessing the almost disturbing serenity of men who were never getting out, and a few who were; hearing their take on the movies they’d make of their own lives, if given the chance — for me it was life-changing. Needless to say, these cats had no need to impress anybody, and as soon as they size you up and figure you’re not full of shit, the stories start coming.
The room we worked in was hard by that iconic yard, but despite the history of the place, and the incredible air of organized menace that prevailed, in no time we were just shooting the shit like any other bunch of well-spoken societal miscreants. And the stories — some of them were absolutely haunting. Without getting too specific, one guy, who let’s just say had some fire-starter issues, talked about his father. His propensity for stomping on puppies. A lot of them talked about their fathers, as men do. Like I say, I don’t want to be specific here, because they’re not my stories to tell. But there’s a kind of poignancy, and power, in the telling of any story that ends up with the storyteller sitting in San Quentin, telling a story. Not one man, as I recall, talked about his crimes. The stories were either incredibly sad or incredibly funny, or both at once.
I asked what kind of movie their lives would be if they were movies. I won’t tell you how many said porn — about the same number as those who invoked the Bible.
One guy I met up there was the trustee who ran the gift shop. After buying a detailed scale model cell made out of popsicle sticks, and a few pairs of dice, I paid the trustee in charge of the cash register and headed out. The guy was an old-timer with a peroxided blond crew cut and a tattoo so faded on his open chest it looked more like veins than ink. “Have a nice day,” he said, “because I can’t.” There’s no cute reply to that. All you can do is nod and back slowly out the door.
As powerful as Quentin was, my experience at Sylmar Juvenile Hall, working with so-called “Violent Offenders,” came freighted with a different kind of intensity. Up here, you were working with kids who were waiting to be 18 and be shipped off to whatever penitentiary they were slated for. I mean, some of these “inmates” looked like children — skinny, tiny, goofy — but they were heading off for some heavy offenses. And listening to their stories — the neighborhoods where you had to take your life in your hands and cross into another gangs’ territory just to pick up milk for your grandmother, and when the police caught you trying to make it back to grandma’s, doing what you had to … well, there goes your future. And, yes, since you asked, there weren’t very many white kids among them.
Because this was a program where you’d go every week — my slot was Saturday mornings — you’d really get to know some of the fellas. A couple months ago, I was put back in touch with one of the youthful offenders, who did some serious time, and was now running for City Council in a municipality just outside LA. He didn’t win, but had he, I would have volunteered to write speeches.
Of course, the guards didn’t let the guys keep pencils in their rooms, and a lot of their writing was routinely confiscated, but I still have stacks of it in my office. All hand-written, and most of it, to my subjective mind, more riveting than the non-felonious YA lit that seems to set the shelves groaning on the outside.
At San Quentin, these were men, some of them, who had no family, no tomorrow to speak of beyond these walls, not a single thing resembling what we would call a chance. What I tried to tell them was that, no matter what else had been taken away, they had their stories. They had material. And writing was a chance to turn all the shit they went through into something else. I would never presume to give these motherfuckers advice, but what I did tell them was whatever they lived through, good, bad, and demented — it was all, to paraphrase and butcher a lyric of Iggy Pop’s, “Some weird gift.”
Maybe I was talking to myself, but I like to think some of it connected.
You can’t visit a place like that and not come away with stories. Though in the end, of course, you’re just a tourist, in their world, you like to think that something real happened while you were there.
I am glad you avoided being an inmate, but still, you have survived so much in your life, horrendous addiction and, more recently, a near-death battle with hepatitis, which you touch on in your new book, not to mention being a Fuller Brush man. Now in your late 50s, you find yourself a father again. What amazes you the most, being alive, being a father, having written all your books?
Can’t lie, I’m kind of embarrassed to still be alive … And nothing about myself amazes me. Are there people who look in the mirror every morning and say, “Look at me! Amazing!” Actually — what am I thinking? — I’m sure there are. (Why else would so many people blog about their lives?) And I’m not sure “amazes” is the word. Perhaps “feels most unlikely” makes more sense. Babies, books, not being dead — all unlikely. Ultimately most of my survival skills, once I survived, began to kill me. Which, among other weird gifts, give you a bit of compassion for the other poor bastards and bastardettes going through some version of what you went through.
On a good day, I feel gratitude. On the bad ones, too … but it doesn’t come naturally. I wouldn’t say I’m a glass half-empty kind of guy. I’m more of the Monsanto’s-polluted-the-waters-and-we’re-all-going-to-die-chewing-our-own tongues, so-in-the-meantime-why-don’t-we-try-not-to-be-dicks kind of guy.
Not sure if any of the above answers your question. What amazes, maybe more than anything, is other peoples’ work. Coincidence or not, none of the writers I admire had easy lives. Joyce was right: silence and cunning.
As for what I’ve survived — it goes without saying most of the planet has survived (or not survived) far worse. On a cosmic scale, in the hell-pit of the 20th and 21st centuries, I’ve had an easy ride. Not to mention, most of my torments were self-inflicted. Everybody’s good at something.
What surprised you most about being an OG Dad?
Mostly, just being one. Once you wake up on Mars, seeing glow-in-the-dark slugs just seems normal. If that makes any sense.
There’s a certain kind of serenity that comes with knowing you and the planet are both 75 percent dead.
You raise the question right out the gate in OGD that you worry about the state of our planet’s environmental health for the current generation of children being born. As I walk the streets I see kid tsunamis up and down the sidewalks. Are we a nation of optimists or breeders in denial?
Neither — it’s ignorance. Like Voltaire said, “self-delusion is the key to happiness.”
You have to be aware of something to deny it. We have an entire system set up to deny for us — we don’t have to make the effort. It takes effort to know what the fuck’s going on. But what fun is that? This, mind you, is coming from the guy who skirts coronary thrombosis every time I think that my wife, who occasionally falls asleep in our child’s room, has her cell phone inches within three feet of the little one’s head. There is, I am certain, a way to bring this up without sounding like some tinfoil-hat-wearing asshole — but in fact we’re beyond tin foil. It’s science. I know this because I bought the little shields you can stick on your phone that effectively neutralize the microwaves. But it doesn’t matter. I think of my little girls’ soft, still-forming gray matter — so vulnerable, so susceptible, on a molecular level, to the hell-rays emanating from an Android, or an iPhone, or whatever brand of kiddie brain-cancer generator it is — and I die a little …
See, what I mean? Right there? I’m already sounding like a paranoid crank. But listen: I’m old enough to remember these X-ray shoe size measuring devices they used to have in shoe stores — at least I think I remember. Maybe I just read about them, and retro-worried myself back in time. Either way, they used to have these X-ray devices you would slip your feet in and stand on, effectively bathing your kiddy genitalia in mega-carcinogenic radiation. (I know, I know …) And, guess what? Statistics are in! The level of reproductive cancer in children of that generation, the ones who got their shoe sizes in such a fun and Space Agey way … Off the charts! Empirical evidence! Science!
All of the above I mention by way of talking about what people don’t think about — and the heinous way in which obsessing on them ultimately counters my good intent. My mother was a worrier. She had a catastrophe for every eventuality — if you did not, for example, wear socks with your shoes, then you’d hear about one of “the Roosevelt grandchildren” who got an infection in their foot when she cut it and wore shoes without socks and then sweat all over the wound turning it into some kind of communist germ factory and well … you get the picture. Eventually that grandchild was walking on stumps. And no doubt ended up working in a sideshow.
The difference, of course, is that my fears are real, and documented. I swear.
I’m the guy whose paranoia is not quite assuaged by the non-GMO seal on a package. Call me cynical. Technically you can have cage-free chickens in a parking lot puddled with motor oil and Zyklon B — as long as that cage is open, and the birds can walk out if they want to, well then those birds are considered free range.
So what do labels mean, really …? I don’t trust them on anything, including artists.
Jesus, listen to me. Half my effort as a father goes into not infecting my children, the grown-up and the little one, with my own menu of despair and fear. You try to imbue them with all the joy and confidence you do not, necessarily, feel yourself on any consistent basis. No mean feat considering.
Then again, rage and fear are great prose generators. (To quote Hubert Selby, “It’s harder to write about love than hate.”)
Parano-Dad! Coming to theaters near you.
What was the question again?
I remember the X-ray foot machines. I also have cigarette commercial songs in my head from way back when. Do you remember Belair cigarette commercials, “Every puff like a breath of fresh air”? Was that Madison Ave. genius or what? Do you think we are being led happily to our doom?
Well, our doom generally equals somebody else’s profit.
I have always meant to ask if you have a standout favorite of all the books you have written.
No favorites. They were all necessary at the time.
What works of literature have impacted you most over the years?
From an early age I loved books that said the unsayable. Which, as you claw through the world from young kid to elder-cretin, tends to be a moving target.
For me, trying to figure out the insanity splattered all around, I started reading for survival. Eventually this meant Nathanael West, Day of the Locust; Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn; Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood; Hunter Thompson, Lester Bangs, Samuel Beckett’s trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Nabokov — especially Lolita and Pale Fire (one of the funniest books ever written). Ginsberg’s “Howl.” E. M. Cioran, the mad Romanian from whose On the Heights of Despair I stole an epigraph for Permanent Midnight. “Normal people have nothing to forget.” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Pynchon, Burroughs, DeLillo, Mailer, the Polish author Bruno Schulz, Henry Miller. Bogosian, Joshua Cohen, and Tennessee Williams … Terry Southern’s fiction and journalism (“Twirling at Ole Miss” is a forgotten classic). Southern always felt left out of what he called “The Quality Lit Club.” Like Harry Crews. I love the outsider maniac geniuses.
Among more or less contemporaries (living and dead — if a dead man can be said to be a contemporary), I am never not blown away by David Foster Wallace — as much by his journalism, like A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, as his more celebrated hernia-inducing big novel. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and his nonfiction Seek. (Seek may be the most remarkable “travel” book ever written — though just giving it that label reduces its fearlessness & power.) Rick Moody, James Ellroy, as much for the way he writes about obsession as he does Los Angeles — though it may be the same thing … Huge fan of Cintra Wilson and Michelle Tea … Could keep going. Naomi Klein, Chris Hedges.
Just have to shut up because books still have a massive impact.
Though it’s never just books, there are film directors who kill me, like, Gaspar Noé, Larry Charles, David Fincher. Philip Kaufman, with whom I did the HBO thing, Hemingway & Gellhorn, which was like being paid to go to film school. (Needless to say I never actually went.) The Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. And a director who was as far away from Hollywood as you can get — Maya Deren, whose whole life and works still haunt me … Musicians, from Albert Ayler (his “Summertime” will tear your face off) to Bowie (Lester and David), to all the usual suspects … Huge admirer of the recently departed Chris Burden, with whom I once had the pleasure of having dinner. (He pointed out, on the way, how all the fire hydrants have blue reflectors beside them in the street — a perfectly mundane detail, but one I’d never noticed, and never stop noticing now. That’s an artist. Giving you the dark blue mystery behind the visible.) Many people you love as much for the way they lived, like Miles, as the way they played. Comedians have been a huge influence as well — Bill Hicks, Jesus! Richard Pryor, Moms fucking Mabley … And so many deviant geniuses working today, from my pal Marc Maron to Sarah Silverman and you, Mr. Breithaupt. But don’t get me started. We’ll be here till they turn the lights off.
One of the only constants in this savage and glorious hell-pit of a planet we habit is that people keep making remarkable art — mind-blowing movies, music, books, and everything in between, which falls into no known category. Sometimes you just need something to get you through. It might be Dostoevsky, it might be Dylan, it might be Don King’s hair — I’ve been saved by all of it.
When are you going to be an old old guy granddad? Would that be another book?
Out of my hands.
Wouldn’t presume to tell anyone — let alone my own daughter — whether (or when) to have kids.
As to whether that’s another book — I think the question may be: “Will I still know what a book is?”