Arts & Culture
Spotlight On: Jerry Stahl, Author of ‘Happy Mutant Baby Pills’
Talking to the novelist about pharmaceutical companies, heroin, and menorahs
Jerry Stahl is one of those writers whose life simply writes a novel on its own. Stahl, a 59-year-old screenwriter and novelist, is most well known for his gripping narcotic memoir, Permanent Midnight, among many other works of fiction and film. Stahl’s lived a hard knock life, but he’s lived to tell the tale, and his twisted stories are both mind-bending and fantastic.
I spoke to Stahl about his eighth and newest novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, a construct of Stahl’s fascination with big pharmaceutical companies, and the inveterate corruption and madness that follows. The book’s protagonist, Lloyd, is a junkie. He works as a copywriter for drug side effects, and he shoots up with his co-workers on his coffee breaks. Lloyd soon meets Nora, a troubled young women on a conquest of revenge against those who poison the populace. It’s a roller coaster ride—and a highly recommended one.
What did hitting rock bottom look like for you? What made you get clean?
Being a dope fiend started to feel like a shitty day job, as Jim Carroll once said. I just couldn’t get high and I couldn’t not get high; so I was in that hellacious limbo where just being in my own skin was more than I could handle. I just went through the kick on the street. Having been through a couple rehabs and hospitals over the years, none of that worked. But about 18 years ago, I got lucky and dropkicked into transcendence.
Many Americans are on some sort of mind-altering/numbing drug. And if we’re not, then we’re at least told by pharmaceutical companies and the media alike, which drugs are branded as “good” and which are “bad”—even though the side effects are all of similar magnitudes. What’s your take on all of that?
I think it’s really fascinating because the subtext is always, “Yes. The side effects might be dry mouth, stroke, sexual dysfunction, and suicidal ideation, but guess what? That’s better than how you are now, motherfucker. So you need my pill.” The assumption that no matter what, either with anal leakage, dandruff, and aphasia, it’s worth it because what you’re feeling now is just intolerable.
Happy Mutant Baby Pills explores the way in which language can be twisted to disguise the truth and to make unpleasant side effects sound less horrific. Was this fascination with the skewing of language personal for you?
It’s based on a couple things. One, I’m fascinated by that kind of writing that you almost forget is writing. The guy who has to get up in the morning and go into the office and sit down at his computer, turn it on and eat his Danish and then write directions to Fleet Enema. Somebody has to do that, and somebody has to write the side effects. I think it’s an art. I think we grow up at an early age, ideally, knowing what’s bullshit and what isn’t, on TV, but the equivalence and corollary to pharma side effect ads are ads directed for little kids. When they get in the little kids’ heads when they’re two or three years old with some toy or crazy-ass contraption that the kid sees it and hypnotically needs to have it. I think we’re sort of programmed for that. And the side effects writer’s job somehow short circuits our suspicions and makes drugs seem really warm and cuddly despite the urge to urinate and chew your tongue.
Nora is the love interest of Lloyd. She’s this super dark, hypercritical girl on a mission against pharmaceuticals. She says, “I mean, Obama appointed the former VP of Monsanto to run the FDA.” Truth. After writing a book on the crazy influence of pharma on society, what’s your take on the power structure and the close relationship between pharma companies and government?
Obviously, in the pre-disappointment years, everyone had great hope for Obama, not realizing he’s just a Wall Street and pharma company shill. I mean pharma companies had so much input on Obamacare, so this is nothing new for me. Occasionally, and maybe it’s because at the ripe age of 157, I had another child, and it suddenly all seemed very fucking urgent to me and really revolting. You know the story of aspartame, which was when Donald Rumsfeld was hired to run Searle, the pharmaceutical company, so that aspartame wouldn’t have to go through the usual FDA examination and trials. It could just be let through despite the fact that it essentially causes your brain to melt like ice cream on a sidewalk. It’s banned in many European countries. So that’s the world we live in.
It’s ridiculous that nobody talks about that, and that Splenda is everywhere, in every dietetic item at the grocery store.
Everything that’s sugar-free will essentially have aspartame in it, whether it says it or not. Everyone thinks they’re saving their lives by having Diet Cokes, instead they’re basically killing their brains worse than the worst alchy.
So the protagonist Lloyd, while suffering from an intense drug addiction, was a self-described “horrible criminal,” which I gathered was the result of some Jewish guilt. What do you think?
Well, it’s twofold. That was a bit autobiographical. I’m the world’s most incompetent criminal. Believe me, I did it all, and I didn’t get caught—well, I got caught sometimes, but they just let me walk. I burgled. I stole. I got caught by police at 4 a.m. on the corner of crack and eight ball in L.A., walking a color television set like it was a dog. The cops put me in the back of a police car and said, “You’re going to jail.” But the one smooth move I had— I was using a fake credit card because after I declared bankruptcy with American Express, I got an Optima Card! So the upshot of this long rambling story being, I showed the cop the receipt that I had just bought this at an all night appliance store, for some reason they used to have them in L.A. incase you needed a toaster oven at 4 a.m. I walked, but I was always skating in ridiculous.
But, yes, the Jewish guilt! You nailed me. Busted. As my grandfather used to say, “If you ever forget you’re a Jew, a gentile will remind you,” which was the most sage thing I’ve ever heard in my life on the subject. Obviously, being a Jew, there is a part of me that is guilt ridden, of course. But how that guilt manifests for me is that I felt so horrible and guilty about the things I did to get drugs, that I had to do more drugs to obliterate my feelings of guilt over what I had to do to get more drugs. It was a rat eating its tail. That is absolutely what kept me out there was feeling that kind of guilt, which really does not make for good criminal behavior. The guilt’s there, we just find a reason for it to exist. I think it’s free floating. They always say gentiles are alcoholics and Jews are drug addicts—not obviously always the case, but that was a Lenny Bruce line. Obviously, Lenny was a member of the faith and no stranger to the needle.
Nora seems to be this contradiction of principles; she shoots up heroin, but is in staunch protest against pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and vaccines. I’m curious, what was your thought process behind creating her? Was she the product of all of your conflicting morals?
Because I am a guilty Jew, I am compulsively honest. So, I will say that often times, I can only speak for myself as a writer, you kind of don’t know what you’re doing until you’ve done it. I didn’t calculate her that way, but she is clearly the manifestation of the ridiculous hypocrisy of protesting chemicals while ingesting heroin smuggled up from a poor, syphilitic drug mule’s ass, and then saying, “But God no. I wont take Abilify, that would be crazy.” And, I’m a junkie like that. I used to shoot up heroin and then drink wheat grass and jog six miles around Silver Lake Reservoir. So I suppose I am the contradiction, clearly as well, I’m embarrassed to admit.
Most interesting people are a big bunch of contradictions. How do you deal with that addictive part of you? Yoga, meditation…
Well, that’s a polite way to put it, but thank you. Well, I was a vegetarian junkie, weirdly enough. But yeah, I changed my lifestyle after I lost everything. People have this thought that once you get clean your life gets good, but what happens is you get off the dope and suddenly your nerve ends are raw, and there’s nothing between you and reality. When you’re a drug addict, everything is black and white. You have it or you need it, or you’re on your way to get it. Then suddenly you get clean and it’s all a gray area. So clearly I had to do a lot of adjusting mentally, and really, really learn. Not because I’m a Zen master, but because I didn’t want my head to explode. I learned how to meditate and all of those things, which of course are now out the window because I have a screaming 18 month old in my house. I’ve tried it all. I tried anti-depressants, briefly, until it felt like my tongue was going to fall off. And I couldn’t function. But God bless, I don’t preach and I don’t judge, works for some people. I will say this is the first year I busted out the menorah.
Yeah! I got my Jew on this year.
I got a free one off the street, right by the train, from the Chabad men this year.
I will tell you the worst moment of my life as a Jew was when I was really strung out and I had to meet somebody at Canter’s Deli, which is in a very Jewish district in L.A. And it was right around the time of the Chabad telethon and the guys in long coats and hats, God bless ‘em, were standing in a circle and dancing. And as I was walking in to the restaurant to meet my connection, they grabbed me and made me dance! Like do the hora, or whatever the fuck it was. “The horror! The horror!” as Joseph Conrad said. So I had to dance the hora in a big circle with all these guys in hats and they stuck a hat on my head and I couldn’t break free. I was drafted, and it was intense. But I love that you got a free menorah.
(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty)