Sometimes a good title so perfectly provokes, engages or deadpans to the author's fans, offers that secret handshake of an invitation, that they know exactly what they are going to get. Writer Jerry Stahl's fans, of which Mr. Bib is of course one, will be satisfied, and then some, by the predictabley strange drug-addled existential shenanigans of his junkie narrator, but also challenged to engage a larger political critique which maybe you could also be surprised at with a cover that reads, delightfully, perversely, Happy Mutant Baby Pills. Perfect, of course, by way of the ad-speak meets Beat-poet psychedelic Big Pharma branding which has gotten so very nice and easy to send up, if you are that kind of skeptic and yet done so very nice and rough, to bowdlerize the great Tina Turner, in a novel which finds a way to make a writer of “side effects” warning copy into a murderer, a lover, a crusading co-conspirator of sorts against his own best and worst interests, depending on how you feel about drugs and romance and grassroots politics and religion, which doesn't even begin to cover it all in this “romp” of a narco-narrative that delivers resistance to the organized corporate doping of America by, ironically, two dope fiends. Ha!
Alas, you don't hear the phrase “funny as a crutch” lately, a loss for the richness of language if maybe a step (sorry) forward for handicapped rights. Of course, the crutch here is that rich, busy, horrifying and hilariously perverse life of a user. Stahl is one of the nicest and smartest and most literary chroniclers of the very not-nice, bad, duplicitous un-life of the junkie. He's famous for being a TV writer who was a heroine addict, contributing to “Alf” of all things and being sick and desperate if self-consciously funny and wise and desperate about it all in his 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight, made into a film. So, the opposite of self-help, with its cloying and self-serving industrial prescription of purposeless narcissism or religious babble built on phony purposefulness. Stahl's characters are all about selflessness, if in exactly the opposite way we might choose to think of that concept. Emptiness, but fun, dark, instructive.
There are other Stahl novels, and screenplays. Similar themes. He channeled the voice of the doomed film superstar Fatty Arbuckle in I, Fatty and wrote a wildly, wonderfully inappropriate-for-all coming of ages 1970s road novel called Perv: A Love Story. In the new book, our heroinic hero Lloyd loses his job writing those bizarre warnings about side effects for Big Pharma advertising (“may cause anal leakage”), gets himself busted, goes to jail but is sprung by a TV evangelist type with a perfect scam called, brilliantly, Christian Swingles.
If you are grimacing just now you may not be a Jerry Stahl reader. If you enjoy grimacing, or are feeling giddily happy then you are indeed already a Jerry Stahl fan, or should be one. And, as I suggested earlier, you are probably a fan with politics, of the rebellious, humane good and just type, but who still admires somehow the darkly perverse beauty of the naughty phrase about the crutch. Which is to say you have liberationist politics but can't stand that “politically correct” label, a wonderful bit of purposely ironic self-deprecation stolen from the Left and then used against us, and dim-witted liberals too, by un-ironic and stupid people without history or humor. Don't get me started. (Too late!)
Happy Mutant Baby Pills is druggie noir hyper-sarcasm with a political critique and lots and
lots of wicked jokes: “Jesus: the ultimate Christian single.” It's allegory posing as pulp fiction, with a love story, no kidding. Which allows Stahl to lay some of his most killer lines on us, in between the murder, sex, aspartame, tatoos, Nixon, all of them side effects, as it were, of the culture of addiction and other symptoms of the “need machines” that are humans. Or so the author himself said when I was lucky to meet Stahl in Studio C at KPFK last week. My show with him runs this Wednesday night, thanks for asking. (And thanks for listening.)
Nora is femme fatale and crusader, too. She is a gal a guy could kill for, albeit a guy with a bad habit and problematic taste in women. She's weird and she's so very hot, and poor Lloyd is putty in her hands. And liking it. Think Rachel Carson but a crazy junkie. The fellow who writes those warnings more than meets his match (ignoring obvious warning signs) in the ultimate health and ecology freak, with Nora locating pretty much the end of the human species in the lethal additives, chemicals and synthetic junk (yes, exactly) that has become so much a part of our everyday industrial lives (and deaths) as to mostly go unnoticed when it is not hyped, celebrated, sold. She notices, especially the class of both metaphorically and medically potent “excitotoxins,” (go ahead, look 'em up) and is not taking them lying down. Or is, actually, but I don't want to give too much away that the title has not already by way of the wildly, poetically perfect twist on political and literary anti-homeopathy that is the sci-fi project here.
“It felt good to be crazy for a reason,” offers Lloyd, early in his adventure. This is perhaps the best drop-quote for the whole book. Stahl embraces the device and trope of the lab rat turned resister, the victim as hero. And, best of all, empowers, as it were, a writer (!), a person whose complicity and stricken impulses, motives are so compromised that you just know that there's gonna be some serious reversal of fortune, comeuppance, political analysis. Oh, and those amazing lines? Any writer would die for the seeming throwaways by the reliably, persistently hilarious Stahl. “My logghorea made me nervous. So did global warming, but I never did anything about that either.” Dig the tough-guy fatalism from somebody too funny and smart for his own good. He pitches gruesome murder scenarios for a popular crime program, writing admiringly (sort of): “With enough narcotics, you could learn things from Sam Waterston's eyebrows” and later suggests self-Tasering as a kind of do-it-yourself electroshock. My absolute favorite — and, no, I am not giving anything away here — is the following: “Euphoria is the best side-effect in the world. You're still you. But you're happy about it”
A talented drug addict and his psycho girlfriend who rob and shoot up and go to an Occupy demonstration as role models for political challenge to the very system which has enabled them? Let's just say that there is a big, wonderful flaw in their plans, a kind of collateral consequence (side effect) whose poetic implications make for a very. very beautiful ending, one so bold in its sincerity as to undermine and yet affirm at the same time.
In tone and style, Jerry Stahl is the bastard child of Terry Southern and Nathaneal West, if a
child necessarily contrived in a test tube in a secret lab somewhere. You know what I mean: comic farce meets social studies, style and absurdity, where what is real is both so alarmingly close and still far enough away for us to pretend it is fiction, art, parable.
In 250 pages of sardonic, smart, mean and horrific-funny episodes, Stahl sets us up for the arrival of even more Frankensteinian horror. He convinces us that side effects have overwhelmed purposefulness, that consequences and accidents and logic have been smothered and confused by meaningless words, and that the army of peddlers of dope whose happy-face jingles and warnings and legally-required caveats have won. They haven't, not quite, as human frailty, of all things, intervenes, posing as strength. That's all I will give away by way of hints. The first one's always free.
I did get Stahl to record a promo for the station, as Lloyd himself seems to be a fan of Pacifica's singular narration of reality. Check it out, on page 152, in a loving send-up of our beloved free-form community alternative KPFK:
“Strangely, I never thought philosophically, except in panic situations, when reality was so brain-explodingly fucked that my mind began broadcasting some mash-up of Noam Chomsky, Alan Watts, and Gary Null, product of the countless nights I'd staggered through insomnia letting KPFK in LA…marinate my waking nightmares…”
Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Jerry Stahl, Harper Perennial, 256 pgs., $14.99
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.