I kicked my last dope habit in federal prison and I can tell you, there’s nothing romantic about it. Whatever you might imagine the experience to be will probably not be far off the mark. Picture hellish monotony, cramps that never vanish, months of sleeplessness and of course, that special craving. Making art out of this experience is difficult. My own recollection of the episode is dank and foul. As Dante said of his Inferno, death is hardly more bitter.
Perhaps that is why I have such an affinity for the books of Jerry Stahl. He pulls art out of the dark recesses that most of us would rather bypass. In is memoir, Permanent Midnight, he recounts his own struggle with narcotic addiction. Sure, who hasn’t penned their dirty laundry tales, especially when it comes to tweaking, purging, losing, kicking or screwing it? Stahl wrote of his own inferno in a manner that neither glamorizes or understates his meandering off the Right Road. He does sift art from the darkness with that same wry tone with which Hamlet addressed his mother when she quickly remarried after his father’s murder – The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Stahl uses that same balance in his new novel, Pain Killers (William Morrow). Manny Rupert, ex-cop, ex-junkie, private eye, returns from Stahl’s earlier novel, Plainclothes Naked, to investigate reports of a living Dr. Mengele currently incarcerated in San Quentin. Is it really Mengele of just a con gone stir crazy? Ruppert’s investigation opens several cans of worms as readers will discover. At turns his book is both darkly comical and philosophically challenging. Only Stahl would attempt a tragic comedy about Dr. Mengele. This is rough terrain. As Stahl told my brother at a recent reading in Phoenix, you’ll go to hell for laughing at this.
Q) I remember that you did an episode on Nazis for the television show CSI a couple of years ago. Did that plant the seed for Pain Killers?
No, I was actually up to my eyeballs in research, and siphoned off some Mengel-alia for the episode. You know, things tend to bleed into each other. I’m not particularly encumbered by genre. The terrible and great thing about TV is that other people take what you write and change it – in the case of CSI, which boasts an epic batch of writers, inevitably the better – and it also gets made relatively fast. Books, with their long lead time, give a freakishly compulsive rewriter like me plenty of time to hang himself or choke to death on adjectives. Television adheres more to the James Brown philosophy – Hit it and quit it!
Q) Just what kind of morbid archives did you delve into to research your book? I expect that whatever you unearthed was beyond grim.
Not archives so much as a few really amazing and beautifully researched books like Edwin Black’s The War Against The Weak: America’s Campaign to Create A Master Race and IBM and the Holocaust, and another curl-up-late-and-night feel good tome, The Nazi War On Cancer. “Archives” implies a bit more scholarship than I can rightly take credit for. I kind of fed like a blood sucking maggot on the brilliant work of others.
Q) You mention in your book, this country’s practice during the post war years of harboring Nazis who were deemed valuable to the American cause, such as Wernher von Braun, the rocket genius, while leaving the rest to Nuremberg. What do we as Americans make of such a practice? Obviously it’s a policy we still continue today as our Presidents have been chummy with about every dictator who slimed across the earth in the latter half of the 20th century. Are we thrifty or tasteless?
“Thrifty or tasteless” – what a beautiful turn of phrase. Operation Paperclip, which was the American program to import Third Reich scientists deemed necessary in our fight against our new, post WW2 enemy, the Russians, was really neither. It was simply amoral and, by the lights of our government of the time, practical. Nobody cared that the man who got us to the moon ran a slave camp during World War Two. Fitzgerald may have said that “There are no second acts in American life,” but that didn’t simply to apply to Nazis whom America deemed useful.
Q) I think if your book was true, it would be dead on regarding the media rights scramble over the discovery of a real-life Dr. Mengele, it would definitely be a circus. Mailer, in his book on Gary Gilmour, Executioner’s Song, described such a scene with Lawrence Schiller and Gary’s execution. A real life was at stake here but the lines between Hollywood and reality seriously began to blur. Do you think we are numb to chaos and doom and tend to view life as a poorly written script instead of something real?
I think “numb” may be a tad optimistic. We are not numb. We love the chaos, love the muck and the filth and the despicable, sordid truth because, in the end, morality is just a pretense and a luxury. And America makes a religion and virtue of being practical. We would justify the circus-making aspect of it all as some sort of justifiable – and hugely marketable – event. Because, after all, a minor industry in Mengelalia would create jobs. And Jon Bon Jovi could play Mengele.
Q) What made you decide to bring Manny Rupert back? Was he the right man for this job?
I had no real plan in mind. I wanted to write about Mengele, but fifty pages in I realize I was in danger of cranking out “I, Mengele.” A book for which I do not believe America is crying out. Manny was a way in. Something to hang the story on.
Q) Recently you worked with inmates at San Quentin, teaching them creative writing. How much did you draw upon that experience for your book? And can you tell us something about the documentary that was made about that experience?
San Quentin Film School, the documentary series, was shot and conceived of by Bruce Sinofsky. Bruce is the man behind doc classics like Paradise Lost, My Brothers Keeper and, for all you metalheads out there, the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster. The idea was to turn this into a series on A&E. I’m not sure where it stands now. Last it heard it was going to be air on Discovery Channel. But don’t quote me. The experience, on one level, had the surreal quality where you stumble into the reality of something you’ve seen only in dreams and movies. San Quentin holds such an iconic place in the American mythos. And the reality didn’t disappoint. Especially the gift shop. I could have spent every last dime there on heinous paintings of seashores and sunsets. I always wondered where motel art comes from. I think now I know.
Q) Did we ever reap any beneficial medical advances from Mengele’s twisted tortures?
Great question. Nazis were very advanced in some twisted but undeniable way, when it came to health practices. Hitler was a vegetarian, banned smoking (originally just for Jews, then the entire Reich) and took the lead out of toothpaste tubes, among other things. We learned many things from Mengele – but most of them we didn’t need to learn: ie that brown eyes can not be turned blue with transplants. I don’t think we really needed to learn that. And it was vile and disgusting even to try. But the man had a mission.
Q) Who can resist an ex-cop, ex-junkie PI? Can we expect to see him again in the future? Will he survive this economy?
I don’t know that I can survive this economy – so who knows about Manny? Writing novels is a luxury pursuit. Like driving a bigass Cadillac when gas is four bucks a gallon. I love the character, but in all honesty, the nation is not pounding on my door, begging me to march Manny out again.