THERE'S a wonderful moment in Jerry Stahl's new story collection, "Love Without," in which a beleaguered son arrives at the nudist colony where his father is dying and gets ambushed by a posse of residents who press him to go native. " 'I'm really just here to be with my dad,' Harry explained. 'I don't really know if it's a nude kind of situation.' "
For Stahl, of course, everything is a nude kind of situation. His stock in trade is a lyric perversity that seeks to undress our basest urges. (Or, in the case of the bestselling memoir "Permanent Midnight," his own.)
But the most compelling tales in this volume are about the holy, not the profane. The loyal spouse who narrates "The Somnambulist's Wife" is seeking spiritual remedy for her husband, a boxer who sleepwalks in the middle of bouts. Having hauled him to a tent revival, she suddenly loses faith: "The shadow of my doubt was so great that it swallowed the light, swallowed everything, so there was nothing else and the darkness seemed like truth. Are we ever anything but ourselves?"
Elsewhere, Stahl has a ball shredding the pieties of the abstinence-obsessed. "Pure" is a rollicking account of a born-again prostitute who carries a book of matches embossed with her personal credo, JIMP -- "Jesus Is My Pimp." "Only born-again girls in the Life knew what JIMP stood for," Stahl notes. "Sometimes strangers would see her matches, recognize the letters and raise their hands before them, palms up, in secret recognition. It was like being a Mason who screwed sad men for a living."
His heroine, naturally, refuses to have vaginal sex with clients, because she's saving herself. "Here's the dirty little secret: sometimes, when a Christian girl says she is waiting for the right man, she means Jesus. There I said it: That's the hottie we're all waiting for. God's hunky Son!" The satire is broad, but there's a chirpy radiance to the voice of this modern-day Magdalene. Why shouldn't she desire Christ? The man routinely appears in public half-naked and ravishing.
Not all of Stahl's stories scale such ecstatic heights. "I did not mean to sodomize Dick Cheney," one tale begins. As inviting an opener as this may be to readers who view the vice president as the moral equivalent of a Scud missile, the story never evolves beyond a prolonged stunt. It's clever in spots but ultimately uninterested in humanizing Cheney. Stahl is never a dull writer. But he does have a tendency to rely on characters who seem to have been cribbed from dirty jokes. We encounter a midget with a sexual fetish for braised vegetables, a coke dealer who pursues the ingestion of drugs through suppository means and a suburban dad eager to perform the mattress mambo with a nubile teen.
Stahl is an exploiter of the seedy, but he knows how to shock us into laughter, and his best work mines the grotesque for pathos, a tradition that includes Flannery O'Connor, Barry Hannah and Denis Johnson, writers who appear to have influenced him. The key isn't whom he writes about, but at what depth.
"The Age of Love," for instance, tracks a horny adolescent as he engages in an unlikely aeronautic tryst with a widow named Doris, who is fresh from her husband's funeral. It's pretty standard stuff, B-list Philip Roth really, until the narrator uncorks this confession:
"I woke up hugging Doris. More than hugging, holding onto her. Squeezing, the way my mother used to squeeze when she wanted me to play 'cuddle boy.' When she was staying in, and it was afternoon forever, and I had to lay in her seething bed, my face in the hollow of her throat, cheek mashed to her bosom, gulping hot, under-the-blanket fumes until my eyes watered and I pretended I had to go to the bathroom and ran away."
Stahl's stories are often like this. One moment he's dispensing silly zingers, the next he's evoking genuine heartbreak. His language veers from lazy cliches -- "creamy thighs" or "white-knuckled" -- to startling originality.
The pieces gathered here were written over three decades, but oddly, their quality has little to do with their vintage. (The Cheney dud is new.) Instead, the inconsistency seems more a function of Stahl's sensibility. For years, he's made his nut as a TV writer, where the dark impulses that charge literary fiction rank as heresy. He's got tremendous talent but doesn't always choose to take it seriously. Call it the Alf syndrome.
Still, I had a great time reading this messy book. It's the antithesis of most collections being published these days, those cautious, disciplined efforts that nearly always seek the badge "a novel in stories." You can smell the marketing wafting off them.
When he's at full throttle, Stahl plunges us into depraved worlds with a keen intensity of purpose, and his addled protagonists run up hard against the truth of their desires. His lesser efforts are more like adult-only sitcoms: cheap laughs that depend on the minor shock of impropriety rather than self-revelation.
Then again, we could do worse. And most nights, if the folks at Nielsen are to be believed, we do.