Image courtesy of Jerry Stahl
Happy may be one of the words in the title of Jerry Stahl’s new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, but no one would ever describe the author of nine books as being happy himself. This is the man, after all, who launched into the cultural stratosphere in 1995 with Permanent Midnight, an addiction memoir that became a classic and established Jerry as one of the sharpest, gloomiest, and funniest observers of junkies around.
Eighteen years later, Jerry has penned eight more books, numerous television episodes, and an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated movie—many of them traveling over terrain as dark and uproarious as his iconic memoir. In other words, you know you’re swimming in Jerry Stahl soup when the characters are mentally ill addicts committing both petty and major crimes, the political conspiracies are rampant, and you’re laughing despite your discomfort over how close to home Jerry’s satire hits.
But Jerry is no longer the same man who became the face of junkie literature two decades ago. He lives a rather sedate life, and in the past year, he’s even gotten married and had his second kid. Despite this, Jerry is as funny and dark as ever. When I asked him if his 18-month-old daughter still cries through the night, Jerry nodded and asked, “Who doesn’t?” before adding, with only the hint of a smile in his eye, “I think it was her screaming last night, but it might have been me.”
You could say that Happy Mutant Baby Pills is as close to a parenting memoir as Jerry’s work is ever going to get. It features a heroin enthusiast named Lloyd and a “possibly very insane” woman named Nora who, in the author’s words, “decides that her protest against deregulation and rampant capitalism is to consume every over, under, and beyond the counter substance—from Rustoleum to Aspartame to every fucking drug you can imagine—in order to have the most mutant, fucked-up, egregious offspring she can.” A few weeks ago, I sat down with Jerry to talk about his new novel, the changes in his life, and his attempt to convince Ben Stiller to promote his book.
VICE: Was Happy Mutant Baby Pills inspired by your wife’s pregnancy?
Jerry Stahl: When I found out that she was pregnant, I had started this trial drug program for hepatitis C. They told me when they gave me the pills, “If your pregnant girlfriend so much as touches a drop of your sweat on a sheet, this child is going to be born purple with wheels and a Rondo Hatton head.” I said, “What the fuck? Do we have to fuck in a HAZMAT suit?”
So you guys didn’t have sex for a while?
She had to move out. It was too dangerous. She went back to Austin, and we had the baby there. When I came off the medication, I moved there for a while before we came back here. It was a crazy situation.
So you started to think, What would happen to the baby if we did have sex?
To bring a baby into this world is insane anyway, but by virtue of having a pregnant wife and knowing that being on this medicine could cause this baby to turn into a sideshow act, I got obsessed with all the chemicals that could cause damage, and I started researching. The only way I know how to deal with fear of something is to go right down to the bitter bottom, the most hellacious possibility, and so I found out about all these heinous fucking birth defects. Did you know that there’s benzene, paint thinner, toilet cleaner, and lithium in breast milk?
Are you serious?
Yeah. Although for my kid, a little free lithium may not be the worst thing in the world. This book was driven by this fucked-up reality that nobody really knows or thinks about.
How much of the book’s protagonist, Lloyd, is you?
He’s sort of a failed writer, which is something I know a little bit about. He’s one of those people who reads the backs of cereal boxes as a kid and then grows up and writes the backs of cereal boxes, which also comes from my life—I’ve had some crazy gigs.
Some of the CSI episodes that Lloyd writes in the book sounded like CSI episodes you wrote.
I’ve done more transgressive, skeezy shit at 9 o’clock—the family hour on the family network CBS—than I’ve ever put in print, and millions of people are happily consuming it. I did this episode called “King Baby” about this infantile guy who drinks breast milk and dies when he’s given an LSD enema and flies out the window.
How much of Nora’s concern about Monsanto and capitalism in the book is your own?
It’s all me, and I have a real fucking rage about it. I laugh at it, because what are you going to do? All oppressed people laugh at their pain.
The video you made to promote the book—which features you begging for promotional blurbs from Jason Schwartzman, Michael C. Hall, and Ben Stiller, among others—is hilarious. I didn’t actually know it was possible to make a good book trailer until I saw it.
Director Larry Charles, who’s one of my best friends and a complete mensch, volunteered to do it, and then Ben Stiller’s company, Red Hour, got Funny or Die to finance it. It was fucking great. It was mocking me as this desperate guy living in his car. The funny thing is, because I look like a guy who could conceivably live in his car, people actually believed it. I think my publisher thinks I live in my car. I have lived in my car before.
It probably wouldn’t work that well now, with the baby.
It would work fine with the baby—just throw the fucking diapers out the window. I did a Moth story where I talked about living in my car and how there was no bathroom, so I had to shoplift diapers because my solution to the lack of a bathroom, when I was on drugs, was to wear a diaper. You want to talk about incomprehensible demoralization? Try being caught shoplifting diapers from a pharmacy.
Did you actually wear them?
No, because I got caught.
You could say that getting caught saved you from further demoralization.
Yes and no. At that time, I was smoking a lot of crack, but I didn’t want to drink because I thought alcoholics were the lowest. So I was also drinking Robitussin DM, which gave me rocket-propelled blue shits, so I had blue stains on my ass like I’d won a fucking blueberry pie sitting contest at the county fair.
Anna David is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and the non-fiction books Falling For Me, Reality Matters, and By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There. She’s also the CEO and editor of TheAfterPartyGroup, the parent company for AfterPartyChat and AfterPartyTreatment.