If you wanted to make it in television, I sensed, you'd just have to roll up your sleeves.
--from "Permanent Midnight: A Memoir"
Jerry Stahl looms--floats--Bogosian-like (Seinfeldesque?), over the title of this coruscating, crazy-lantern, hellza(skin)poppin' memoir of a skeevy, sweet-souled dope fiend who just happened to be a TV hack. Along the bleachy brick road, Stahl reveals a hophead's lesser vanity--he has lousy teeth. Maybe he's exaggerating. In said jacket photo, his mouth--window to the street junkie's soul--settles handsomely, proprietarily, over what I fantasize to be a veritable unflossable ghost yard, a hideous MacCarthur Park of bleeding gums and tooth-fairy abandonment. I'm already jonesing for the candid mugs soon to come down the PR pike in the gentle wake of cherubim DiCaprio's "Basketball Diaries": Jerry Stahl smiling for "RayGun," Mr. Stahl in the New York Times magazine, Jerry S. in "Bikini" and "Arena," caught unawares, mouth agape, in one of those spic-and-span-modest-new-West-Hollywood-digs, starting-over spreads in "People"--just like that famous yawping Avedon of Oscar Levant: Jerry Stahl, aged Yuppie "Moonlighting" dialogist, "Alf" meister and occasional "Twin Peaks" scribe, showing his nerve-dead, battleworn choppers to the world, thereby rendering this movie-of-the weak Odyssey heartbitingly real, yanking us from the realm of kicky, kicking TV confessional to full-blown toxic funhouse horror show. This ain't no Viper Room; this ain't no foolin' around.
It's like one of those medieval books with poisoned text, with blood as the recurring theme--the fingers get syrupy as you turn the pages. Our beleaguered scribe wears hipster-black so his sleeves won't stain from the noodlings of the harpoon; the filthy ichor spritzes onto bathroom ceilings during the endless geez, forever "zorroing" onto lavatory tiles--slam, bang, tang--where he mainlines "Mexican wonder-tar" before story conferences and pitch meetings. Hunkered in the "Stahl," the spike does its thing while Ed Zwick stands at the nearby urinal, humming the theme from "Exodus." He turns in scripts spattered with venous droppings and even ties off with the cord from his Smith Corona; habitually borrows alcohol from puzzled studio Xeroxers, saying it's to clean his typer when he's cleaning needles instead--a TV commissary "Naked Lunch."
In a scene that would have made for one hellaciously memorable "thirtysomething" (yet now so perfect for "ER"!), Stahl zorroes the men's room at Cedars while his wife is in labor, just making it to delivery in time for the nurse to force him into a sleeveless surgical smock. As baby Nina enters the world, a George Clooney-type cringes at the sight of blood running from the proud new father's self-described "well-ventilated arms." In another poignant episode ("Picket Fences"?), he flies back East to see Mom after her failed suicide. While she's comatose in the hospital, he visits the condo; the shag carpet is fairly clotted. "The stench drew me to the bathroom, where what I saw burned into the very fibers of memory. Blood on the mirror, appearing, to my reeling senses, to form a single, crippling word: NO. Beneath it, droplets ran and solidified. Red and frozen tears." A remorseful Brad Pitt, our sad vampire-in-arms, scours the walls of this mortifying womb with Comet.
Stahl has easy, loping, hepster story gifts (the Ohio stuff about working for Larry Flynt reminded me of Terry Southern's "The Blood of a Wig"); there's an upfront, doggedly refreshing '50s Freudianism throughout. His father, an inexpressive, hard-to-hug, all around civic paragon and former Pennsylvania attorney general, makes a telling appearance in one of Stahl's daymares--like something out of a Czech animation fest, our author, needy, boyish horsehead that he is, literally shoots Dad up. Naturally, the dark, all-business Ozzie succeeded where skitzy Harriet failed--Stahl Senior gassed himself in the garage. The \o7 frisson \f7 comes when it's noted that the family dog wriggled its way through a crack and perished in the noxious suburban sanctum. I loved that: One envisions the tail wagging down like a tired metronome as the pup waits for his perfect master to exit the Bonneville. Doesn't Stahl himself somewhere say, "It's the details that make human beings creatures of such irresistible freakishness?" Dad is in the details.