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Book Review: Painkillers and Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl

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“I did drugs because there was another world, and I wanted to live in it. Because I preferred this Other World to the one I happened to inhabit. Because I could exist in imaginary circumstances with greater ease that I could in real ones.” 

Jerry Stahl penned Permanent Midnight (which was published first in 1995, second edition in 2005) as a memoir that would serve as one of the most reliable and instructive routes to understanding the psychology of addiction and the nature of Hollywood TV studios during the late ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s.

The book is divided by seven chapters with humorous titles:

Part One: Low End Hollywood
Part Two: Mondo Porno
Part Three: Television Virgin
Part Four: Kiddieland
Part Five: TV I.V.
Part Six: Huggies ‘N’ Heroin
Part Seven: Toxic Exile

The prologue borders gory territory: “Here & Now” (Testicular cystectomy & diapers),” almost as drawn out of a vignette from The Cramps comic book.

Stahl made $5,000 per week writing for television series such as ALF, Moonlighting, Thirtysomething, and more, but he spent $6,000 per week on drugs. His began his career writing short stories (he won the Pushcart Prize) for adult magazines such as Beaver, Penthouse, and Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine, which would jokingly earn him a reputation as sex addict.

The book works as a cyclic Ebbinghaus learning and forgetting curve memory study, which will undoubtely withstand the test of modern classics. Profuse sweating, trembling, and mental slurring are typical expressions of the writer’s deranged turmoil along his narrative — unexpected mood changes, bouts of nervous laughter, underdeveloped real feelings that lead him into uncontrollable seizures. Living inside Hollywood’s Falstaffian underbelly, the possibility of making a decent life evaporated overnight. We even find echoes of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust Hollywood’s hubris resonating here.

Jerry Stahl seemed to be perfectly conscious on the surface but was getting exhausted from the all drug abuse and emotional rage that tainted his clarity amidst increasing doses of heroin, cocaine, crack, Dilaudid, Dexedrine, Hycodan, and more.

We remain petrified and woozy during this rushed ride, watching as the author’s fantasies expire, conviced that in Thomas Bowdler’s hands this minatory manuscript would be relegated to a half-blank page. In the Velvet Underground’s song “Heroin,” Lou Reed wrote: “Heroin is my wife and is my life.” The iconic tune is built on just two chords, D and G, that are repetitiously played faster and faster, anticipating an agonizing climax.

Stahl moves us to a deracination process so profound that we’d need a transliteration in order to absorb some of his most crackbrained thoughts. Disobedient to the corporate TV studios (“creativity is the opposite of TV”) his personality is rousing and scary, charming enough for us to root for his salvation despite his permanent heroin incantation. He grew up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, after his father’s ascension to a federal judgeship, attending the preppy Hill School, his classmates the privileged sons of show business moguls.

It’s heartbreaking that Stahl disguises with tongue-in-cheek quips painful memories of his dad’s suicide in the garage (“he never had a father and I never didn’t”) and his mother’s denial of it. (The passage in which she phones him the night after Mother’s Day is chilling: he can’t stand his mom’s accusations and hangs up the phone, staring at the grey sky. At 6:23am he has a meltdown and bursts out in screams. Later, this reflection: “I have done everything, from slashing my wrists to shooting heroin, to stay the good little boy. Because, I see now, on some cringing level, that’s all being a junkie was. Forget being cool, forget being underground. It was a way of staying ashamed”).

Hubert Selby, Jr. (author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream) gives him advice about writing about what hurt him, about the torture. Although progressively insensitive to others’ needs and expectations, Stahl surprises us with a few moments of love for some of his partners: filled with warmth for Sandra (his green card television exec wife) he brings her breakfast one morning. He can’t seem to reform while he’s attached to yuppie demands (he “never glommed on to the big buck WASP thing”) but the fact he is capable of bighearted actions, among his ghoulish habits and antisocial recidivism, just confuses us a little more.

He meets Kitty in a rehab centre in Arizona, where he’s bound to pass the 92 days clean program, although he’s been writing unreadable stories in the library stacks at Phoenix College and he’s expelled from the center when he stops following the rules after two months.

I found the relationship described in the novel slightly different from that in the film Permanent Midnight (1998). In the book they meet at the center and flirt, then she dumps her Christian boyfriend and reunites with Stahl in motels and her apartment regularly for sex sessions whose goal is replacing drug addiction with simulacre foreplay, physical contact being a barrier from another type of substance craving.

In the movie, Jerry and Kitty meet in a more cineastic style while he’s working at a McDonald’s and she asks him for matches. In the motel, he’ll recount his rise and fail story as a response to Kitty’s incredulity.

While in the book, Kitty appears more like a saviour and the relationship more romantic/tormenting (“I was so in love my heart hurt … I didn’t realize how much I wanted to die until the first time I fucked Kitty. Nor how much I wanted to live”), in David Veloz’s film it’s a post-modern love story in development, in which Maria Bello plays Kitty as a witty counterpart (“You’re too darn sad-looking to just be another retard in a pink visor … I get it. You’re the angsty, arty, Hemingway type who sold out to Hollywood, hit the needle and ended up in rehab”) to a highly ironic, distant, in-recovery Jerry Stahl, played by Ben Stiller (“Trust me, on smack I was a real stud … I slept my way to the middle.”).

The visual technique merges slow fly-by scenes and frantic montages, using an oppressive L.A. backdrop, featuring Elizabeth Hurley as Stahl’s ambitious wife (“She saw us as a potential Hollywood power couple in the making”, whom he loves “occasionally”), Peter Greene as the psychotic drug dealer, Owen Wilson as a high school friend, and Janeane Garofalo as a forthcoming agent obstructing Stahl’s path to sanity. The real Jerry Stahl has a cameo as Dr. Murphy in the film, an unmoved doctor at the Methadone clinic.

The book covers more topics such as Stahl’s estranged family (his sister drops her lawyer job and moves to Nepal after marrying), cleaning up the bloodstains after his mother’s suicide attempt that puts her in a coma, and his encounters with celebrities. There is more detox anguish and detailed snapshots from Tinseltown’s scene than in the film, more extended passages that Veloz tries to comprise through flashbacks and bizarre moments, such as Stahl sleeping with a German junkie (Connie Nielsen) and a rendezvous with Pamela Verlaine (Cheryl Ladd).

Stahl suffers overpowering self-loathing and regret but he ends in becoming one of the most insightful philosophers of addiction’s ignis fatuus: “what is heroin, really, but every junkie’s teddy bear? Can you understand this? Shooting dope is all about getting warm and fuzzy. Heroin may kill you, but it’ll never break your heart … you’re just generating more pain, more penance for the one sin you couldn’t help commit. The sin of being born.”

In the movie, we can taste anguish, narcissism, and vulnerability through Ben Stiller’s inspired and harrowing performance that shows us shame and intelligence as survival tools. Maria Bello also captures our attention by creating a consummate portrait.

The way Stahl defines his heroine Kitty — long white dress, straw hat, pink ribbons, RayBans, foul mouth — will serve as a pattern that we’ll see later in his novels, the complicit and solicitous minx. Tina (Manny Rupert’s lady in Painkillers) is frisky and funny, but her mind piles up shades of darkness (a bulimic past, working as a Bible call-girl).

There are a few comparisons of Tina with Kitty from Permanent Midnight: “We don’t even have sex. He’s too busy reading the fucking Bible. He calls me Jezebel.”

In Painkillers (2010), Stahl delivers his sharp prose again (“If you’re a junkie, obliteration is your job,” says his protagonist ex-cop Manny Rupert) throughout a fictitious Schwarzmarkt, featuring some real historic figures like the Nazi Dr. Josef Rudolf Mengele, a race scientist and high ranker in the SS, who used inmates for human experimentation at Auschwitz. The Teutonic supremacists, Jewish humor, and Christian porn websites are entwined in a neo-noir plot reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. Manny Rupert infiltrates in San Quentin prison to investigate a recluse who claims to be the Angel of Death, war criminal Josef Mengele.

Although his objective is unmasking Mengele’s identity and his current practices in prison, he can only think of Tina, who’s left him and operates as an Internet escort for a fanatic Christian group. It’s not a small treat Stahl is capable of dredging up corrosive humor navigating infernal Third Reich crimes (that Hitler was vegetarian, avoided coffee and wanted to ban Coca-Cola in Germany didn’t sit well with America’s governors), Americans’ fixation with television prison programs (Prison Nation, Lockup), pharmaceutical corporations, unorthodox sexual obsessions, religious fetishes, etc.

Tina’s character is a renewed femme fatale figure (“She’d Dranoed his Lucky Charms. I was the homicide detective. We were in a small town outside Pittsburgh. I threw the tainted cereal in the garbage disposal before the evidence techs showed up. They called it an accident. It was not what Hollywood would call a ‘meet cute'”). Looking at her, Manny is thinking of sex with a praying mantis: “Hey, man, did you hear about that guy, got his head bit off while he was fucking? They knew. But they climbed on anyway. That’s what it means to fiend for something. … You need it more than you care that it’s going to kill you… Don’t tell me you’re thinking about praying mantises,” Tina guesses. “Being known was an uncomfortable aphrodisiac,” he admits. “I got struck sentimental. The first time we fucked, you said, ‘Try to make me happy but don’t leave marks.’ I didn’t know it was from a movie. I’ll Kiss You When I’m Dead. A cult classic.”

“All we have to do is not die” sounds unembellishedly poetic when we stop to glance at the uglified world of mimicry that permanently surrounds us.

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About Kendrac

I'm a Catalonian freelance writer, poetress and film critic. My favourite genre is Noir. My real name is Elena Gonzalvo.