|photo: Frank Delia
Pushcart Prize-winner Jerry Stahl has written eight books, including the memoir Permanent Midnight (made into a film with Ben Stiller), and the novels Bad Sex on Speed and I, Fatty (optioned by Johnny Depp). A former culture columnist for Details, Stahl's fiction and journalism have appeared in Esquire, the New York Times, Playboy and the Believer, among others. His blog, OG Dad, appeared on the Rumpus. He has written extensively for film and television, most recently the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn. His new novel is Happy Mutant Baby Pills (November 5, 2013, Harper Perennial). Anthony Bourdain wrote: "Jerry Stahl should either get the Pulitzer Prize or be shot down in the street like a dog."
On your nightstand now:
Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches. One of the greatest memories of my life is driving to Santa Barbara with Nick and Hubert Selby. Selby had to give a speech, and beforehand we ate at some joint that served venison, full of guys who looked like they strangled the deer before putting it on the plate. The whole way back Selby kept asking me to step on it, so he get could get home in time to hear Jack Benny on the Old Time Radio Hour on KNX-AM. Here's one of the darkest, most unapologetically savage writers of the 20th century, and he can't wait to get home to Jack Benny and Rochester. Also, The Metamorphoses by Ovid, because sometimes you just grab a book at four in the morning, and it turns out to be perfect. Baby Farm Animals. Sort of terrifying--the opening page shows a sloe-eyed lamb who looks like she was born in Chernobyl, but my 16-month-old daughter loves it. The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven by Rick Moody. Moody is one of those writers who continue to astonish (not a word I use more than once a year). Underneath these are Daddy Cool by Donald Goines, the literary godfather of hip hop. When I taught at San Quentin, Goines was the one writer a lot of the fellas mentioned; he wrote a novel a week on heroin, and still didn't get a MacArthur grant. Witz by Joshua Cohen--it's about 9,000 pages, but every one's got a gem on it. Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein--which, given our current reality, is like living in a nightmare and having it explained to you at the same time. Love for Sale by Barbara Kruger. Her work hits somewhere below--or beyond--the verbal.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Diseases of the Skin. My best friend and I found this in a ditch when we were six, and the photos of some poor bastard in Guam with his testicles in a wheelbarrow or the girl with bleeding potatoes on her face no doubt altered my world-view in ways I'm still paying for.
Your top five authors:
Nathanael West, Denis Johnson, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O'Connor, Hubert Selby.
Book you've faked reading:
My own novel, Perv. When I first got glasses, I was so in denial I kept forgetting to leave the house with them, and one night found myself at a podium in Portland with the open book in front of me. I looked down, saw melting worms instead of letters, and just pretended to read while making up whatever vaguely relevant gibberish came to mind. Nobody seemed to notice, and it may have been better than the original.
Book you're an evangelist for:
On the Heights of Despair by E.M. Cioran. Cioran was this genius Romanian insomniac who wrote odd little paragraphs all night to keep from killing himself. Which is a lot more hilarious than it sounds reading the preceding sentence.
Book you've bought for the cover:
1000 Forbidden Pictures. Classic Taschen, with a black-and-white of a '50s woman who looks alarmingly like my mother exposing her nuclear brassiere on the cover. I'm not sure I can even explain it.
Book that changed your life:
The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West. I read it when I was 15, and remember thinking, after certain sentences, "I didn't know you were even allowed to say things like that...."
Favorite line from a book:
"The special grotesquerie of sane men leading normal lives." --from White Noise by Don DeLillo.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. Syllable by syllable, the most amazingly beautiful, hysterical and devastating description of a dope fiend's soul--and America's--I have ever read. Every time I re-read it, I recall what the musician Billy Taylor allegedly said when Art Tatum walked into a nightclub he was playing in in St. Louis: "I play piano, but God is in the house...."