He’s not quite the last of a dying breed … but close. Like his dear friend the late Anthony Bourdain, Jerry Stahl’s boundless curiosity, mordant, often politically incorrect humor, and prodigious talent has led to bad behavior, myriad successes, and a drug habit. (Stahl is now a sober pescatarian.)
Novels, memoirs, TV, movies, journalism, marriages—Stahl (born in 1953) has succeeded at all, and failed at a few. He broke out with his harrowing and often hysterical 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight. The New Yorker’s Thomas Mallon wrote, “Only self-disgust—which fills Permanent Midnight and the autobiographical Perv—inspires Stahl to the same level of lyricism as drugs do.” In the vein (cough, cough) of Junky, The Basketball Diaries, or Stahl pal Hubert Selby Jr.’s writings, both the book and a 1998 film adaptation of Permanent Midnight, starring Ben Stiller, were acclaimed—if reviled by a few timid souls.
To promote his latest book, Nein, Nein, Nein! (from Brooklyn indie publisher Akashic), Stahl was glad to embark on a lengthy Zoom interview with the Voice, his one-time freelance employer. The Pittsburgh native was attending Columbia University when he began to write “weird little articles” for the paper. “I didn’t really know much about journalism,” he recalls. “My first piece was about confession magazines, which used to be a thing. I heard an editor in an elevator while I was going for an interview at the Voice say, ‘The only difference between me and my readers is that my IQ is over 80.’ And because I knew nothing about ethics, and clearly had none of my own, I put that right in the story in the Voice and promptly had to apologize.”
That said, “The Voice was one of those places, you know … I loved the building. I loved going there. I maybe did four or five pieces for it. But it meant a lot.” Meanwhile, back up at Columbia…. “My major in college, Jesus … Drugs, I think,” he quips. “I dropped out. I went back and graduated in a year and a half. It was just about being in New York, really.”
Now a Left Coast resident for decades, the still-not-sunny Stahl became known for the ’80s TV show ALF, the fuzzy alien albatross around his literary neck. (Stahl wrote for the series while shooting heroin in the sound-stage toilet.) As in his writing, in conversation Stahl moves easily and amusingly from the late Lemmy Kilmister, of Motorhead, to Fatty Arbuckle. What follows is a portion of our discussion (edited for length and clarity).
Katherine Turman: You’re based in L.A., but you began your career in New York in the early ’70s. Did it seem like the center of the literary universe when you were here?
Jerry Stahl: I was never part of the cool club. I had friends in bands at CBGBs. I wasn’t part of any literary thing. I was just some weirdo, writing soon-to-be-never-published novels. Before Permanent Midnight, when I was like 38 or 39, I’d written six unpublished books and published the first chapter in Playboy or some literary magazine. It finally came together with that book and took off. I was doing a lot of magazine work, but I’m so antiquated that it was before the Internet. Ten years of journalism, just like it never happened. I just wanted to do that Gonzo thing, which is still kind of how I operate—you put yourself in these grotesque, sometimes dangerous but always mortifying situations, and then write about them. Like I would do a nude singles’ retreat at Elysium and have naked buffet with your genitals in potato salad. Or a funeral home directors’ convention. Just weird shit, get to know these people, then write about what it’s like being in that situation.
Which pretty much describes Nein, Nein, Nein!, whose subtitle is “One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust.”
I did a previous Nazi book, a novel called Painkillers that I worked with Larry Charles to try and adapt as a show. It was about Josef Mengele living in San Quentin and insisting he was who he was. I’ve always been attracted to that kind of topic and that world. With this book, I put myself in the situation of Nein, Nein, Nein! For a variety of reasons, wanting to go to concentration-camp-land while feeling very depressed and despairing—that seemed like an appropriate place to haul your despairing, depressed ass to, which I did. I got Vice to pay me to cover the cost of a bus tour with a bunch of wonderful people from the Midwest and New Zealand, many of whom had never seen a Jew. So it was festive.
“Being an ex-dope-fiend, I’m great with catastrophe. You know, broken shoelace, I’m a dead man. But world falls apart, I can stay cool.”
Were you glad to represent?
I’m not sure I was representin’, I think I defacto represented the Jew on Board, you know?
The characters on your bus tour were amazing: the gay couple, the one you call Shlomo, the vomiting woman.…
It was a cross-section of humanity at its best. Mind you, I ended up really liking these people. It’s not like I’m putting myself somehow above them. There’s a great Jonathan Swift line, I hate humanity, but love every Tom, Dick, and Harry, that sort of applies.
In the middle of your journey/the book, you write that you’d wrestled with your “troubling incapacity to comprehend” the Holocaust. Are you still wrestling?
I think the mistake we make—or I make, or one makes—is waiting for the grand emotion to sweep over you. We are a petty species, you know, and it’s that old line “tragedy is I get a hangnail, comedy is you slip on a banana peel and die,” attributed to Mel Brooks. Somewhere in there, the truth lies. There is a certain … I don’t know if it’s protective, if it’s innate. But how do you comprehend the incomprehensible? When I get there, what I focus on is I can’t believe there are snack bars, and people are chowing down on pizza as they come stumbling out of the ovens.
To me, I don’t know if that’s a testament to the human spirit, or testament to the utter degradation of humanity. You be the judge. But it might be the ultimate revenge that they have so petty-fied what was so staggering and important to Himmler and Hitler and Goebbels, that it’s now a pizza joint.
In Nein, Nein, Nein!, you write about the piles of hair from the Holocaust victims, which was beyond horrifying to me, something I hadn’t thought about.
Of course, [I mention it] two times. How would you react to that? I mean, imagine yourself in front of that. How do you wrap your head around it?
You can’t. I want to cry right now thinking about it. The other thing was the numbers on the hooks where they were told to put their clothes, as if they were coming back for them. It’s the little things….
Exactly. It’s the specificity through which the enormity enters. You can’t believe they went to that length. And they did. And you can read about it. And then there are the truths that … at the Schindler Museum, the tour guide was talking about how more people wanted to see the hotel where the stars of Schindler’s List stayed than actually wanted to see the Schindler Museum, which is a spectacular and powerful place. That’s the world we live in. [On the bus tour] we had to go around the room and say why we wanted to make this trip. And at least half of them said they had seen Schindler’s List. And wanted to get to know more about the Jews.
Did you tell your new bus friends you were going to write about the journey?
Yeah, and I obviously changed the names. After I came back.… Well, I always write on the backs of napkins, tickets, receipts. I came back, and my place was a mess. A friend of mine’s grandmother offered to clean it. So this person came in and saw a big pile of trash with scribbles on it and just threw it away. So that gave me the opportunity to pull a full Truman Capote and remember all conversations. I tell myself that great Oliver Sacks line, memory is just the story we tell ourselves about what we think we remember. So that’s what I’m going with. I’m sticking to it.
When you discovered they had been thrown out, did you have a heart attack?
Being an ex-dope-fiend, I’m great with catastrophe. You know, broken shoelace, I’m a dead man. But world falls apart, I can stay cool.
You write about a phone call you got while you were touring the camps, which was from a studio executive you were working with.
I had done an earlier book called OG Dad, which is about the happy circumstance of marrying someone plenty of years younger and having a child, and it was all great. They bought the book because I had been on [with comedian] Marc Maron, but they hadn’t read the book. Long story short, once they actually read the book, and read my take, they were horrified. By then, of course, things had fallen apart. The child was living in Austin. Occasionally I have a bad marriage but a great divorce. So anyway, I was being paid, allegedly, to write this happy version of life as that life had collapsed, and as I was touring the camps. So I make the mistake, as I stagger out of the ovens, that when the phone rings, I pick it up. It’s some poor bastard from ABC saying, “Could you make Jerry less creepy?”
And he was asking that of the actual creepy Jerry, a real person, not a character.
I always wonder—of the many things I wonder about these awful circumstances—how long after you are enslaved and imprisoned do all the problems that you’re obsessed with and dominated your psyche—how long does it take to fade away and you get into pure survival mode? And you realize your perspective was completely misbegotten and misguided this whole time?
That was just something I thought about. I don’t know what the answer to that is. I’ve read a lot of writers, fiction and nonfiction, and some people have an incredible sense of humor. Some people, like Primo Levi, will tell you that the good people weren’t the ones who survived, and then end up killing themselves years later by throwing themselves down the stairs in Turin. So it’s a question to wrestle with.
As a New Yorker, I read some of Nein, Nein, Nein! on the subway. I had the thought that people would see the typeface of the title on the cover and give me a look. The font kind of tells you the topic.
It is true, but that typeface has become so trendy for a certain breed … it’s almost borderline goth. There are a lot of people who have that typeface all over their bodies at this point in time. Many of whom worship Lemmy. So it’s not the most arcane typeface, but I like it. I think they did a decent job with the cover.
I actually thought of Lemmy while reading your book because of his interest in Germany and collecting Nazi memorabilia. Did you meet him?
There’s always that shit you wish you had done. I neglected the Lemmy portion of the proceedings. He wasn’t a believer [in Nazism]. He was a collector, I believe is the distinction. Am I right?
Yes, that’s what he always said. So, I want to get back to your new book momentarily, but you mentioned Bourdain—you got to know him while you were in New York?
I got to know him in New York. And he did me a huge solid. This is a side thing about a different book. But he did a nonfiction series for Bloomsbury about sort of weird iconic Americans. He wrote about Typhoid Mary, who turned out to be a chef. I decided to do one about Roscoe Arbuckle—Fatty Arbuckle—nonfiction. And after 50 pages, it sounded like a fucking term paper. So, without consulting the publisher, who is absolutely thrilled, believe me, I made it like kind of a faux memoir [I, Fatty (2004)]. I wrote in the first person of Arbuckle himself, so then it’s a novel, which worked out great. Probably my most popular book, and I always have Bourdain to thank for that.
And he did that weird thing in The New York Times where he said, “If I ever die, I want Jerry Stahl to write my story.” Which I decided I would never do. But people came out of the woodwork. I just let it alone. As Marlon Brando once said about a guy who wrote a book called Bud: The Brando I Knew, “Friends don’t write books about friends.” So I just held my mud on that one.
“The ax is always falling, and you gotta be grateful for the time in between while you have it.”
Did you have a book deal when you began your bus journey?
Well, I had an arrangement to go there and write a six-part series for Vice. But really, they didn’t want anything personal, mostly straight-up reporting, which is fine. But when I wrote the book, it morphed into this other thing, which kind of can’t help but be more sort of Gonzo-adjacent territory. I use that word hesitantly, because I’m not putting myself in the original Gonzo league. I’m always as surprised as the reader to see what the fuck happens next and how it shakes down. I’m not an outliner.
The world has become way more politically correct. When your editor or whoever your first reader of Nein, Nein, Nein! was, did they flag anything they felt was “too much”?
Well, from my point of view, what I wrote was written with total respect. And the humor is based a) on me; I always make myself the biggest asshole in the room. That’s what I tell the kids at journalism school when I’m the guest speaker. And b) It’s a very respectful book. What I’m talking about is some of the commerce involved. And some of the very human situations that arise in this inhuman environment.
My first day at Auschwitz I got mistaken for Michael Richard [Seinfeld’s Kramer]. So these young, I think they were Filipino, teenage girls, start screaming, “Kramer, Kramer.” And before I can resist, they wanted my autograph. I mean, what is the etiquette for being in a death camp and signing autographs as a celebrity you are not? Emily Post never covered that. It’s those moments that I write about. And I would argue that’s just humanity. That’s not disrespecting the truly horrific events that humanity fell victim to. Does that make any sense?
Yes, well said. And you also knew a lot of Jewish and Holocaust history going in.
What I kind of realized is that if you look at America’s vast history of Nazi involvement, from the Dulles brothers [who channeled funds from the United States to Nazi Germany in the 1930s] to Prescott Bush [George W. Bush’s grandfather], being a patron and friend of Hitler’s all the way back, you just realize the miracle is when a Holocaust is not happening. The ax is always falling, and you gotta be grateful for the time in between while you have it.
I know that’s how you end the book. One sentence, a simple thought about the time between Holocausts, which was just devastating.
It’s just something you realize, as you read about the history and immerse yourself in the history: It’s always happening somewhere. It’s still going on in Yemen. It never fucking ends; it just might not be happening to your people at any given time. ❖
Katherine Turman writes regularly for the Village Voice. She lives in Brooklyn.
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