Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Fistful of Pain Killers

I hate wasting things. Doesn't really matter whether it's throwaway ideas I've scribbled on a napkin, interview material that didn't make the final cut, or fully-fleshed out articles that never saw the of day for some reason.

So in the interests of self-preservation, I'll hit you with this brief review of Jerry Stahl's new novel, Pain Killers. This would have run in the Rocky Mountain News soon, had the newspaper survived.

A couple of notes. First, this was written for the broad audience the Rocky enjoyed, so it's not quite as personal as, say, my column. Secondly, this is entirely self-edited. When I wrote for the Rocky, I relied heavily on the advice and expertise of books editor Patti Thorn, a fantastic editor and stellar talent. But this one is all on me.
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Pain Killers by Jerry Stahl

Book in a nutshell: Talk about a guy who’s done it all. Jerry Stahl has written episodes of television ranging from ALF to CSI, plumbed the depths of his own heroin addiction in Permanent Midnight (later made into the 1998 film starring Ben Stiller) and is currently pitching a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle around Hollywood with Johnny Depp.

To his credit, the ambitious noir writer has kept up with his fictional pursuits, most recently in Plainclothes Naked, a volatile, over-the-top detective caper that introduced Stahl’s muse, former crack addict and private eye Manny Rupert. In its sequel, Pain Killers, the author resurrects Rupert to go undercover in California's notorious penal system to ferret out the true identity of a rather unusual prisoner.

What reaction does Manny have when he catches senior citizen Harry Zell planting Photoshopped fakes of a bikini-clad L. Ron Hubbard and bondage-favoring Jerry Falwell in his bedroom? Take the proffered gig, naturally. “This one is real,” says Zell, tapping a photo of a gap-toothed SS Officer. Zell wants an inside man to get into San Quentin to out the infamous Nazi “Doctor of Death,” Josef Mengele, clipped on a hit-and-run charge. Rupert takes ten large from the cryptic septuagenarian to infiltrate the prison posing, ironically, as a drug rehab counselor.

With characteristically profane brio, Stahl weaves together an anarchic plot that incorporates Rupert’s tart ex-wife Tina (now employed by Internet-based escort service), provocative twelve-step confessions from the prisoners, an indictment of governmental torture techniques, and some graphic new experiments by the bad old doctor.

Sample of prose: Manny Rupert does some soul-searching. “What if I met Mengele and just lost it? Started to cry? Or what if this was all a front and I was actually being delivered to him? Like a lab animal. How did I know he still wasn’t doing experiments? Maybe my own shoe-leather liver – the third of three transplants, thanks for asking – would be used for some infernal, Mengele-esque purpose.”

Pros: Stahl wields black humor, profanity and the mechanics of addiction with inspired confidence but he also knows how to propel a story forward, peppered with Tarantino-esque dialogue.

Cons: Stahl’s prose sometimes comes laden with a seedy, narcissistic tone. It makes you ask yourself if he's trying too hard to achieve the desired shock value.

Final word: Bonus points for daring to make Mengele funny but Stahl’s off-the-wall take on prison, war crimes and human rights appeals to a pretty narrow band.

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