Junkie Legend Jerry Stahl

By Tony O'Neill 04/03/11

Jerry Stahl is the lavishly lauded author of such cultish, darkly comic classiscs as Permanent Midnight and Perv. He's also a former junkie. Tony O'Neill quizzed him about writing while high, his days as a porn writer, and his endless obsession with drugs.

Jerry Stahl shows off his soft side

“It’s always amusing when some ‘Look-at-me-I’ve-got-skull-tattoos-and-I’m-dangerous’ guy tells you how they need drugs cause they don’t want to lose their edge,” Jerry Stahl admits during a conversation full of riffs on the idea of drugs and creativity. “It’s amusing because I was that guy—minus the skull ink.  My tattoos are possibly even lamer. Until one day Hubert Selby laughed in my face and said, more or less, “’Trust me, numbnuts, it’s not until you get off the shit that you realize how fucking crazy you really are.’ In other words, contrary to the cool-ass rock star/artist-as-outlaw cliché, dope keeps you square. And I got tired of being a square. But that’s just me. I guess you could say I wanted a different cliche.”

Ever since Thomas De Quincey set down to write Confessions of an English Opium Eater through the time that William Burroughs claimed not to remember writing much of Naked Lunch and right up until the present day practitioners of the dark art of drug-lit, heroin and writing have long seemed intertwined.  Jerry Stahl, who burst onto the writing scene with his searing memoir Permanent Midnight in 1995, is a natural part of this gritty lineage.  Few people have ever managed to write about the lifestyle of the addict with as much grace and humor as Stahl.

Much of the dark humor present in Stahl’s books—which include Perv: A Love Story, Plainclothes Naked, I, Fatty, and his most recent novel Painkillers—comes across when you talk to him.  When I wonder if he has ever felt that he is unfairly stuck with the whole “junkie writer” tag, he dryly comments that the only tag he’s worried about ending up with is a toe tag.

Stahl is fairly skeptical of the whole romanticisation of the junkie writer.  “I don't know that opiates have a hold on anybody's imagination—except for opiate addicts,” he tells me.  “Only civilians romanticize this shit. When I wrote, dope made the chair a lot more comfortable. That’s about it.”

Romanticisation aside, there is a thread of addiction and drug use that weaves through all of Stahl’s work.  This is to be expected of course when an ex-user writes his memoir.  But his later books—like the perverse coming-of-age story Perv, the hardboiled pastiche Plainclothes Naked and even his bestselling novelistic reconstruction of the life of Fatty Arbuckle I, Fatty—also have a healthy vein of drug use running through them.  “They say some people are born with a residual tail and I guess in my case, the one still wagging in much of my work would be drug addiction,” Stahl says.  “It’s a world I know a bit about—my little Vietnam, you might say—so there is no denying that it serves as kind of a touchstone. But it’s also true that drug addiction is never just about drugs. It’s the story behind the behavior interests me. Otherwise, it’s just narco-porn.”

Thanks to a successful movie adaptation, Permanent Midnight probably remains Stahl’s best-known work.  However, since it was published in 1995, he has been consistently turning out fantastic material.  One of Jerry Stahl’s great skills is his deft use of humor to underscore the horror of his character’s situations.  The narrator of Perv—16-year-old Bobby Stark—has been described by Ben Stiller as “Holden Caufield on bad acid."  The book opens up with a teenage gangbang that will have even the stronger readers out there rolling with laughter while they reach for the sick bags.  In Painkillers, Manny Rupert (the on-again-off-again drug addict and private investigator) goes undercover in San Quentin—as a drug counselor—to find out if an octogenarian prisoner really is Josef Mengle.  It takes a hell of a writer to squeeze laughs out of subjects like the Holocaust, drug addiction, and white supremacist prison gangs, but Jerry does it and then some.   His work runs contrary to the idea—perpetuated by a glut of bestselling drug memoirs out there—that writing about addiction has to be so serious. Stahl agrees.  “To quote Samuel Beckett," he says, "'There's nothing funnier than unhappiness.'”

So why does he think that humor is so often missing from these narratives?  After all, as I have often told people about my own addition to heroin, it wasn’t all bad; otherwise I wouldn’t have done it for so long.  “There is a tendency when dope fiends get together,” Jerry says, “towards a kind of my-abscess-was-bigger-than-your-abscess one-downmanship. But the same can probably be said of ex-meatpackers. Though not the abscess part, hopefully. To me, what any great book does is render the particular universal. Drugs aren’t the subject of my books any more than more than Moby Dick is about fishing.”

The heart of what I want to talk to Jerry about is the matter of drugs and creativity.  So many writers have openly talked about their romance with drugs of various kinds that there’s a skewed perception out there that drugs are somehow a shortcut to creativity.  Anyone who has either done drugs for any length of time or worked in the arts will certainly attest to the fact that this is a ridiculous idea.   But how did drugs affect Stahl’s creativity?  Was he—like William Burroughs or Charles Bukowski—someone who could write while high?  Or did he follow the Hemingway dictum of waiting until you’ve finished your day’s writing before you got good and drunk?  A friend of mine told me he had to completely detox before he wrote a word, and his constant yo-yo’ing on and off junk eventually led to a fatal overdose.

“My problem was that I couldn’t write when I wasn't using," Stahl says. "The chair was too uncomfortable.  Learning how to write while not being loaded was as hard— in its own way—as kicking in the first place. Every time I did manage to get clean, I’d try to write and end up back on the corner of Balloon & Eight-ball.  It was the insane but unshakeable belief that all the words I needed were somehow inside a syringe. But in reality, it’s not about drugs—it’s about fear. Fear of looking stupid, fear of failure, fear of silence, fear of daylight. Without drugs, you don’t have control—which is terrifying.”

“But listen,” he adds, “I have no judgment whatso-fucking-ever about anybody who works loaded. If it works for you, God bless. In a way I was lucky. I washed ashore with a liver more toxic than Love Canal and a case of Hepatitis C that’s had doctors telling me I was a dead man for 15 years. (The joke’s on them—I just feel like one!) So it’s easier for me, because one shot of anything and we’d be having this conversation from the ICU.”

It seems Stahl has always been a model of productivity, and reading about his heroin days in Permanent Midnight, you get the impression he was a dope fiend of the old school: the Lenny Bruce, Charlie Parker type of junkie who stayed high but retained an amazing work ethic.  Clean, his output remains impressive.  When I ask him what’s next, he reels off a dizzying list of projects.  “One thing about kicking at 39," he says, "is you feel like you have to make up for lost time—not that making fries at McDonalds when you’re 38 isn’t awesome. So I work on lots of stuff at once. Larry Charles and I are adapting Painkillers, and a movie I wrote for HBO about Ernest Hemingway and his war correspondent wife, Martha Gellhorn, is shooting now with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. Hemingway was known to take a drink or two—so this may qualify as another saga of substance abuse, but back then everyone was drunk. I'm also working on a novel—18 months overdue—about Sammy Davis Jr. and the great African-American pulp writer Donald Goines.  Goines wrote a novel a week on smack until somebody blew his head off. And I signed on with Johnny Depp to write a remake of The Thin Man. It’s Dashiell Hammett’s last novel, before he stopped writing to spend more time dying of alcoholism." Then he adds, “Actually now that I say this, I’m starting to scare myself. In fact, right after this interview, I’m going to start a nice children’s book about junkie unicorns.”

As we wrap up, the mention of Stahl film work triggers a memory.  I discovered recently that one of Jerry Stahl’s first screenwriting gigs (under the nom de plume Herbert W. Day) was as co-writer of the cult sci-fi / porno flick Café Flesh.  That movie—a bizarre mish mash of avant-garde strangeness, hardcore sex, and post-apocalyptic tropes—was a real favorite of mine back when I was using dope out in LA and thought that Herbert W. Day was a real person.  There was a particular shooting gallery I frequented where I’d come out of a nod more times than I can remember only to find myself on the couch halfway through a marathon screening of this bizarre slice of cinema.  I can’t resist asking Stahl if he ever re-watches it. “Forget re-watching it," he says, a touch of Bill Burroughs creeping in. "I was so fucked up, I can’t remember writing it.” 

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie).  He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. O'Neill also wrote A Case Against Abstinence.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.