"All my heroes were dope fiends"

Jerry Stahl, the cult author of "Permanent Midnight" and "I, Fatty," faces sudden respectability, and ponders the drug rumors swirling around Ann Coulter and George W. Bush.

Published December 6, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Jerry Stahl became a cult figure of sorts in the mid-'90s, when his memoir "Permanent Midnight" achieved legendary status among downwardly mobile members of the creative class. That archetypal drugs-and-downfall confessional recounted Stahl's Herculean ingestion of opiates while careening through a TV scriptwriting career. It's a grossly funny and squirmingly accurate depiction of colossal degradation, the grim photo negative of a literary Horatio Alger tale.

Stahl's story didn't start out that way. He moved from his childhood home in Pittsburgh to New York and Columbia University, where he began a promising writing career. He did a stint writing for porn king Larry Flint and then moved on to Hollywood, where he penned episodes for "ALF," "Moonlighting" and "Thirtysomething."

Like so many writers before him, he found television a harsh mistress, and his heroin habit rapidly got out of control. He once submitted a script to the producers of "Twin Peaks" that was covered with his own blood and hair. At age 38, he found himself taking orders at a McDonald's, where his adolescent co-workers believed he was mentally disabled.

"All my heroes were dope fiends," Stahl says. "Keith Richards, Miles Davis, William Burroughs, Charlie Parker. The thing is, when you're kicking dope, Keith isn't there with a warm towel to press against your forehead."

The success of "Permanent Midnight" got Stahl out of the fast-food industry, as did the resulting film version. (Ben Stiller played our pincushion antihero, and the two became friends.) Two novels appeared, "Perv: A Love Story" (2001) and "Plainclothes Naked" (2002), both of which boasted fictionalized western Pennsylvania settings and recounted the type of drug-induced chaos and whacked-out characters that had apparently become his forte. Both were warmly reviewed and devoured by fans, but didn't break through to a wider audience.

Last summer Stahl published "I, Fatty," a faux-memoir by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who rose to be one of the most famous silent movie stars of his day. The 300-pound comic, revered as the inventor of the pie fight, was the first star to earn a million dollars a year, and then became the object of the first celebrity tabloid scandal when he was falsely accused of rape and murder and vilified by the press. It is a far more empathetic novel than anything Stahl has written before, and to his surprise it was reviewed in the New Yorker, with a high note of enigmatic praise: that "Stahl remains a writer who delivers, every few pages, a bit more than a reader expects." Attention from the New York Times, People and other media followed.

Recently Stahl wrote the 100th episode of the top-rated TV series "CSI," which drew more viewers than the last game of this year's World Series. "I, Fatty" was just published in Britain and will soon be translated into Italian and French. He's also working on adapting the novel into a film, which is being developed by indie producers This Is That (formerly known as Good Machine, which made films such as "21 Grams," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "American Splendor") .

"I've begun to realize that some books confirm your view of the world, some shatter it -- but the great ones do both," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "That's what I'm going for, in whatever genre I happen to be disguising what, for lack of a better term, might be called my particular art."

The following interview is a pastiche that took place over the space of several months, by e-mail and in phone conversations.

What's it like getting major attention from the New Yorker? That's a novelist's wet dream.

Thanks to Ben Stiller being attacked by a puppet while shooting smack in "Permanent Midnight," I've pretty much been pegged for life as "that junkie who wrote 'ALF.'" So I have few illusions -- or concerns -- about my place on the literary food chain. Child molesters can actually do their time and reenter the community, but write a sitcom to pay the rent, and you're pretty much doomed to literary-adjacent status for all eternity.

I have always felt like an outsider, on the page and off, so I can hardly say I was expecting to turn up in the wet, palpitating heart of mainstream respectability that is the New Yorker. That said, being the subject of a Thomas Mallon New Yorker critique was as gratifying as it was alarming. You had the feeling, reading his piece, that he felt the need to get up a few times and spray his laptop with Lysol while he was writing. But I give him credit for subjecting his tender sensibility to mine. I mean, I know what I've been cooking up all these years, and if somebody from the world of Quality Lit, as Terry Southern used to put it, wants to pop his head in the door, that's swell.

This might be a half-baked misreading, but it seems that "I, Fatty" is more politically conscious (or maybe developed, or realized or whatever) than anything in your earlier books. There's nothing definite I can point to, I guess. It's a matter of contrast -- your last novel had the premise of a photo of George W. Bush's privates in the hands of couple of crackheads, which seems written in an entirely different mindset.

First off, nothing in my writing, for better or worse, is "conscious." That implies more choice, control and volume control than this particular writer possesses. That said, this happened to be a time in America when the archetypal moral giants running our life today -- self-righteous, Bible-clutching geniuses like John Ashcroft -- were in the first flush of cultural battles. Billy Sunday, who persecuted Fatty Arbuckle, and Sen. Rick Santorum share the same enlightened vision of humanity.

Ignorance was a tad more baldfaced back then. Rooming houses sported signs like "No dogs! No colored! No actors!" On the other hand, this was a time when heroin was legal -- manufactured by Bayer, marketed as "housewife's friend" and sold over the counter, leading to an epidemic of addiction among the most mainstream, upstanding members of society. The war on drugs was in its nascent phase -- America switched from smack to cocaine with Coca-Cola and assorted other cocaine-based tonics in the early decades of the last century.

The "war on moral degeneracy," i.e., the culture wars, of which Arbuckle was the first and most public example, drove the studio heads, who were savvy enough to sniff anti-Semitism beneath the right wing's concern for protecting America's youth from moral corruption, to invite Christian fundamentalist Will Hays, an ex-postmaster from Indiana, out to Hollywood to assume the position of censorship czar.

You can, among other things, trace the origins of Rob and Laura Petrie's twin beds in "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to dictums laid down by "Big Will." Rumors that he harbored a secret desire to be urinated on by women dressed as milkmaids were never confirmed. And even Randolph Hearst -- who invented the tabloid business on the back of specious Arbuckle rumors -- shied away from printing possibly doctored photographs of Hays in the throes of a water-sports orgy.

How was it writing about someone from another time and place? Your previous novels have been contemporary in setting.

I don't really buy the "outside your own experience" category. We all breathe, fuck, sweat, cry, hunger and a few other things I'm probably forgetting, so, in the end, the specifics of our experience mean less than the universality of our emotional response to them. In terms of, say, Roscoe Arbuckle, I may never have been forced into a fat suit to keep up the illusion of girth for an adoring public, but I can certainly imagine the shame of that situation, the kinds of conflicts, torments and weirdness it must have instilled in the early-abused Arbuckle to have to endure such a circumstance.

Speaking of conflicts, torments and weirdness, have you been keeping up on your political reading? Now that the election's over, the only people left on the bestseller lists are Jon Stewart and Ann Coulter. I saw Coulter on TV recently, and she looked exhausted or strung out.

Do you think it's drugs or anorexia?

I don't think it's either. I just think she's just tired, or maybe she just looks that way.

I heard that vicious rumor that she was Rush Limbaugh's drug buddy.

No way!

Sort of the Courtney Love to his Kurt Cobain. I mean, not a lot of people are talking about it, but I'm just saying, that could be. That's an image you might want to put in your brain. But I don't even want to speculate what she's up to. That's the thing, I don't judge. If she needs a little recreational crack, God bless her.

I thought you were serious for a second.

Yeah, the Kurt and Courtney of the conservatives and neocons. I'm just saying that could be. I'm not saying that's my next book, I'm not saying it isn't. But it's something to think about. She is skinny and it doesn't look natural.

Yeah, but Rush didn't exactly lose any weight as a junkie. He's still a pig.

Well, some people go up and some people go down. I mean, Charlie Parker was a fat junkie because of all the candy bars and shit, so Rush obviously wasn't on an exercise regimen. I'm just thinking that Ann has more discipline, you know?

Rush Limbaugh a junkie -- it's such a delicious thing. It's the same type of thrill you got when Jimmy Swaggart got caught in a motel room jerking off on a prostitute. It's such a weirdly American breed of hypocrisy, like George Bush posing as a brush-clearing regular Joe instead of the zillionaire Ivy League, born entitled, never-had-to-fill-out-a-job-application oil skeek that he is. Not that that's all bad: If you and I could banish our dirty piss tests like Bush did in the Guard, America would be a better place for all involved.

On a more serious note, you have to give Rush credit -- he's probably done more to curb the spread of opiate use in this country than anybody. When I was coming up, you had this hipster dope-fiend legacy: Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, Burroughs, Richards and Nick Cave. Now you've got ... Rush Limbaugh. I mean, who wants to do the same drug as some overfed, unlaid right-wing toady? I can just picture Rush scratching his nose and explaining his anti-immigration policy to the maid he bought his shit from. Buying Dilaudid from your maid -- does it get any more Republican?

What about Bush getting reelected? Any sage predictions as to the character and achievements of the second term?

I'd have to go back to H.L. Mencken and quote something he said in the Baltimore Sun in 1920: "As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

Put differently, as Americans are subtly and consistently stripped of their personal power -- be it economic or intellectual -- the need to bask in some nationalistic pseudo glory must increase proportionately. A few more years of Bush and people will be eating flags -- raw, of course, since if you cook them that counts as burning. Around the time the first Bush-girls porn tape hits the Internet -- "Oh baby, spank my ass and call me Fallujah!" -- Attorney General Billy Graham will declare the entire nation possessed by Satan and invoke martial law until the Dark One can be rooted out. I don't subscribe to the notion that Bush Jr. is necessarily the worst president -- but I do believe he'll be the last one.

But let's get back to "I, Fatty." It really does have a compassion that feels different from your previous books.

"Fatty" was the first book I wasn't writing about myself in one way or another, and therefore, as it turned out, I could write with more tenderness than would usually creep into a book. Of course, Arbuckle was kind of an American innocent, where I was basically a druggie fuckup.

Plus, it's easier to be vicious toward one's own idiocy -- or easier for me -- because self-loathing translated into literature can be hysterical. What I loved so much about Roscoe's character, and his time, was that, in some ways, they were less jaded, they were infinitely more debauched. When you go directly from survival mode to stupid rich, there's a sort of psychoemotional case of the bends that ensues. Which was the case with a lot of those gutter-to-solid-gold early Hollywood types. It's almost like they stayed loaded because their own good luck scared them.

Mabel Normand, who was a bigger star than Fatty when they started making movies, liked to get coked up and do no-panties back flips across the grass in front of the crew. Today that might merit a still in the Star. It's not that we're more sophisticated. Just that it's more shocking to find out some young hot megastar has cookies and milk, reads Horace and goes to bed at 9 than it is to hear they do a bunch of MDA and fuck trannies in Moe wigs. Self-destruction, at this point, is a wing of show business.

What have you been reading recently?

Well, a little [Michel] Houellebecq. Did you ever read that guy? I can't spell his name. That French guy. He's one of these fucking great maniacs. And, you know, the usual. David Foster Wallace. Bruce Wagner's new book is great. There's a lot of amazing writing out there right now.

Which Wallace book?

I love "Oblivion," and one of my favorites is "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men." And "Infinite Jest" is one of those books you're always three-quarters through till you keel over at 80, you know. It's just genius, man. It's like maybe if you wave it over your head some of it will rub off.

I keep hearing people saying, "Oh, no, it's not a time for novels anymore; this is a time for serious books and nonfiction."

Yeah, it's like people announcing the death of irony. You know, there are people who make their livings by making declarations. But from where I'm sitting, just as a guy who reads, it seems like there's a lot of great stuff out there. Sam Lipsyte has a great new book coming out. There's a guy who couldn't even get his book published in America, you know. Now Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing it, a book called "Homeland."

When you talk about being a writer, do people still identify you as the guy in "Permanent Midnight"?

I don't spend a lot of time talking about being a writer to people. I listen to about how they want to be writers. But yeah, people talk about that, sure. That's what happens when you write memoirs. You end up being the junkie guy.

But then this New Yorker review comes out and suddenly I'm a guy with an "oeuvre," a word I couldn't spell before that. People have been calling me up saying, "Hey, now you have an oeuvre. You're a made man."

So I guess everything's different, but people still talk about "Permanent Midnight," in terms both literary and non. Some people respond to the writing, some to the insanity, some to the wailing-in-the-abyss humor. It's not something I analyze a whole lot. But on one level, no doubt, if you're a leper, then other lepers can come over and feel comfortable talking about the time their own nose fell off.

Whether it's "Notes From Underground" or "A Million Little Pieces," people respond to literary howling. Some people have told me "Permanent Midnight" saved their lives -- which may or may not be true. Others, as recently as last week, approach me to say how much it fucked them up. One guy in Florida got very indignant and told me he'd been doing fine, off smack a couple of months, then he picked up "Permanent Midnight," finished it and traded it for two bags of dope. It was like, "Thanks a lot, man ..." I just wonder how his dealer liked it.

You grew up in working-class Pittsburgh, and your previous novels have been set in that area. How much does that background still define you?

Your origins travel with you, one way or another. I still say "jag-off," a regional slur common only to western Pennsylvania exiles like Dennis Miller or Michael Keaton. It's like "asshole" but cruel in ways you'd have to grow up within scent of a steel mill to fully comprehend. I have some relatives back there. Wonderful, wholesome people. And I have one friend I've known since grade school. He was in New York the same time I was, the original drummer for Blondie, until he decided to go back to Pittsburgh and get a degree in chemical engineering five minutes before they morphed from CBGB's to future "Behind the Music" megastars. Who knows? All kinds of unlikely maniacs have come from the "Tri-State area," as they used to say on local news. I mean, Oscar Levant, Andy Warhol and Mister Rogers. Who the fuck wouldn't be proud?

Are you comfortable being written about so much? You've gotten more attention for this book than most authors.

I don't take that shit for granted. If someone wants to write about you, it means a lot. Maybe someday I'll get that sort of relaxed arrogance, but right now it's like "Really? There's no stuff on the Olsen twins you have to write about? That's great, squeeze me in!"

Didn't you write or say something about the Olsen twins?

At one point some interviewer was hounding me about what the equivalent crime to Fatty's would be today, so I suggested it was like if Ronald McDonald gained 300 pounds, then raped and murdered an Olsen twin. Of course that was before all the cocaine stuff came out. I don't mean about Ronald -- I think he's into Dilaudid. I mean the twins. Rehab was not yet part of the Olsens' résumé when I said that.

You don't seem like a Hollywood type of guy, but you still live there.

I don't think I'm a real Hollywood type. Well, I have a daughter here. I'm a family values guy. It's your basic broken home; she lives half the time with me. My house is not that far away and because I'm a writer I'm vaguely unemployed anyway. Having kids, well, it changes your view of your engagement in the world. Then again, I think people get very self-righteous about it. To a lot of people I think they're just yuppie pets.

What are today's kids like?

They're little angry people. I don't meet a lot of dumb kids. Kids are smart, even if they're not school smart. There's, like, nothing for them to believe in. The level of rage against Bush -- I mean, even the hippies had their illusions to believe in. But George Bush wearing a flight suit -- even the children are like, "Give me a fucking break!"

It was very admirable that Bush quit drinking at 40. I don't mind that they have to hide his medical records because he has coke in his blood. But it's like, if you're going to try to con me, give me a more interesting con. For example, Kennedy was good; he stole an election with a certain elegance. But now? Christ! They're recycling everyone from the '80s. There's John Negroponte, king of the fucking death squads, who's now running Iraq. It's all the same shit -- it's just that George W. is the USA cable movie version.

There's one thing about Fatty Arbuckle. Here's a guy who was persecuted by white male Christians who thought Hollywood was corrupting the youth of America. So they blamed Hollywood. In one sense nothing has changed; it's just more slick packaging. There are more evangelical Christians in America than ever. People believe in heaven and hell, and they're red-blooded, God-fearing, Jew-hating Americans. Look at fucking Henry Ford -- or look at Prescott Bush, for Christ's sake. He was cited for fucking trafficking with the Nazis -- that's what gentlemen did back then. I just think nothing's really different. It's just that now, through the complicity of the press, it's so absolute that it doesn't especially get through.

You've also done a lot of journalism. Didn't you interview Marlon Brando once?

That was when Chic magazine was supposed to be Larry Flynt's answer to Esquire or something, and he even hired, I believe, Norman Mailer to write something for the first issue. So he flew me to where Brando was living, but nobody bothered to tell him I was coming and he wasn't in the mood, I guess. It was great though, because I had the flu, and was more or less hallucinating, but one thing I wasn't hallucinating was that all the little children on the island looked like Brando. It was like the island of the little Brandos. And he was running a resort there, mostly for rich Italians as far as I could tell, so there was the surreal spectacle of him wandering around being hassled by some rich slink from Rome who wanted him to know the butter was off.

My first journalism gigs were for the Santa Cruz Times, for eight bucks an article, when I was 20. Back in New York, while I was writing porn for mags like Beaver and Club and banging out fake sex letters for Penthouse, I was also doing things for the New York Press and the Village Voice, and publishing short stories in "little magazines." Until, succumbing to poverty, I took a gig in the humor wing of Hustler, which meant coming up with a lot of gags involving genitally shaped rutabagas people mailed in from North Dakota. I've never been to North Dakota, but for some reason a good deal of the vagina-shaped vegetation this country produces seems to come from there. Maybe it's the soil.

The Hustler gig involved moving from New York to Columbus, Ohio, specifically, the Columbus YMCA. The showers were of the giant stall variety. You had to keep your eyes open because most of the other occupants were brown lung victims, leathery old coal miners holed up at the Y waiting for their clock to run out. And these guys would fire things out of their gullet that could put your eye out. That was pretty much their only recreation, I guess.

But Flynt at that time was going through his religious conversion, with Jimmy Carter's sister [evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton], and a few months after that, when we'd moved to Los Angeles, somebody blew a hole in him with a .357. Larry had things on Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese and all the rest of the Moral Majority, so it isn't surprising somebody tried to take him out. I always liked the guy, though. He had a re-creation of the shotgun shack he grew up in constructed in the basement of his home in Beckley, this ultra-swanky section of Columbus. He was like Horatio Alger with pussy.

You've taken on a lot of colorful assignments over the years.

This was back in the waning days of gonzo journalism, when you put yourself in grotesque situations in order to write about what it felt like being there high out of your mind. So I'd end up at a nude singles retreat at Elysian Fields, in Topanga Canyon, dancing naked to "Fame" (not the David Bowie song, but the theme to the old TV show) until the DJ stopped the music and you had to "hug the three people next to you!" Which in my case generally involved some guy named Irv from Reseda and a couple of saucy blue-hairs.

I've been on burial-at-sea ships, where a father-son team unloaded shoeboxes full of "cremains" into the ocean. This was memorable because, as they were dumping a batch, they were eating Big Macs, and a squall came up and blew all the formerly human grit back onto their burgers. One thing I didn't know: What's left after they cremate you isn't powder, like in the movies. It's more like kitty litter or gravel. In fact, when I go, I'd like to have myself scattered on somebody's driveway.

That kind of stuff. Tons of weird encounters. My heroes were guys who cranked out some weird hybrid that was more than nonfiction and more than fiction, but not just criticism or commentary either, the weird and the hysterical and massively felt or researched or hallucinated, the Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Gay Talese, Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs continuum which was journalism that was really fiction but not, sometimes making your own weird sensations the real focus of whatever you're writing about, sometimes going deep into genius parallels, the Tom Wolfe thing of finding comparison between the evangelical Christians and the sans-culottes or whatever.

I'm not a guy who's kept meticulous records and files. I've moved around a lot, voluntarily or otherwise, so all that magazine stuff becomes a blur, and there are dozens of stories that have disappeared into the mist. Still, for your basic introverted, chemically altered aspiring novelist, being plunged into these arcane situations -- whether it's covering the Miss America Pageant, the Republican Convention or Puerto Rican midget wrestling -- is not the worst way to see the world.

What happened to you after the success of "Permanent Midnight"? Was that a difficult period?

It was a weird time. You learn how to deal with catastrophe, but I wasn't prepared for success. I mean, seeing the worst moments of your life projected nine feet high by people that vaguely resemble you -- it's like years of therapy in 90 minutes. I think everybody should have a movie made of their most mortifying moments and have it shown around the country in rooms full of strangers. Then you get you see how people react to them.

Before that got made, the money fell through, so I ended up hanging out for a year with Ben Stiller and working on "What Makes Sammy Run?" I went from abject poverty to taking a private jet down to St. Bart's, writing scripts and eating Sly Stallone's leftover tuna sandwiches on the plane. It was bizarre after living so long with a Depression mentality.

"Permanent Midnight" was filled with loathing about the TV writing you were doing a decade ago. But you seem to have come to terms with it.

Well, I was much more pretentious back then. You know, it was like "Gee, Samuel Beckett didn't write 'ALF,'" but then again, nobody asked him to. For all everyone knows Beckett could have had his own HBO series. It's a balancing act and you have to know when to jump off the train. I got to do the 100th episode of "CSI," and that's great. It's instant gratification and I have no contempt for it, but if that's all I did I'd go nuts.

I didn't know what the fuck I was doing back then, and it was a long time ago. I'll still probably have "He only wrote three 'ALF's" engraved on my tombstone, but I don't take myself that seriously anymore.

By Christopher Dreher

Christopher Dreher is a writer living in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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