Joe Donnelly’s New Book Expands Explorations from L.A. to all of So Cal
With an immersive and witty but never affected writing style that envelops the reader into whatever new world he seeks to explore, Joe Donnelly is a storyteller who, as we said when his first book LA Man came out, never plays it safe. The former LA Weekly editor has a new collection of essays called So Cal- Dispatches From the End of the World (Punk Hostage Press), which continues his adventurous style, this time widening his scope and capturing the sunny –and not so sunny– vibes of Southern California people and places. Here, we share two excerpts that provide his take on two inimitable figures –writer Jerry Stahl and LA Lakers superfan James Goldstein.
PRINCE + DARKNESS
Originally published in the LA Weekly
I’m deep into a harrowing Diane Sawyer special about hillbillies in Kentucky (a cautionary tale about the pre- and post-natal effects of Mountain Dew if ever there was one) on a cold and stormy night in early March, when something slams into my front door, causing me to jump off the couch.
Opening the door, I spy an anonymous brown package on the porch. Inside is the novel Pain Killers. It is signed To my friend, Joe, Jew for a day—Jerry. Armed with his fourth novel since his breakthrough book, the memoir Permanent Midnight, Jerry Stahl has, in his own inimitable fashion, done a drive-by.
Pain Killerscontinues the adventures of Manny Rupert, the hapless, hopelessly romantic (in his own damaged way) cop-cum-detective we got to know and love in Plainclothes Naked. This time a septuagenarian Jewish millionaire named Harry Zell, who wields his walker like a shillelagh, enlists Manny to go undercover as a drug counselor at San Quentin. Rupert’s mission it to determine if a certain peroxide-blond 97-year-old inmate is in fact none other than the Nazi Angel of Death, Dr. Joseph Mengele. As if that isn’t nettlesome enough for the illicit substance–susceptible sleuth, his first night on campus reveals his ex-wife and love of his life (who offed her first husband in Plainclothes Nakedby serving him a bowl of Drano-and-glass-laced Lucky Charms) has taken up with the leader of the prison’s Aryan gang . . . who happens to be Jewish.
How’s that for a setup?
Sitting there with his big, brazen new novel freshly hurtled into my living room, I got to thinking about Jerry Stahl and how, in a fashion that’s so typically Los Angeles, it may be lost on some of us what a treasure we have in him. To his friends, he’s a quick-witted curmudgeon who hides his bleeding humanity behind a gruff demeanor, black leather jacket and self-deprecating joke. To critics he’s either “a better-than-Burroughs virtuoso,” as The New Yorkeronce described him, or someone whose brash style, transgressive compulsions and unnerving thematic content is a source of visceral discomfort. He’s been called the dark prince of literature, and his style has been dubbed gonzo noir.
But that’s just lazy labeling. The truth is that Stahl brings a surprising empathy and a sharp social critic’s eye to bear in his examinations of marginal characters and American dysfunction. Sitting with him at Vic’s, he tells me about the inspiration for his latest.
“It came from the rage of living in a country where Bush was doing all this insane stuff in our name, and that somehow metastasized into writing about the link between America and the Nazis and how we were still killing people who were considered less valuable than us because they were nonwhite and in some way that folded into the Nazis and Mengele, and I married that into this obsession . . . It’s that fact that this prison porn, it’s fascinating,” he says. “Everyone thinks [MSNBC] is Rachel Maddow and Matthews and Olbermann, but what it really is, is some guy named Pepe who’s been in this shoe in Pelican Bay and is now on TV making gang signs.”
How pop culture melds with the unseemly underbelly of our society is a topic ripe for thesis papers. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Stahl tackling such themes so starkly and so entertainingly at the same time. Pain Killersis both in your face and subtle at the same time. It’s the work of a live-wire mind, one I’ve gotten to know and appreciate over the years.
As we sit for lunch — and at Jerry’s request I’ll spare the rote atmospherics, except to say that as princes of darkness go, Stahl is one handsome fella, who is quick to laugh and poke fun at himself — his book is just out in the world receiving the wild mix of raves and repulsion that accompanies a Jerry Stahl novel. I ask how’s he’s feeling about it all.
“There’s no silence like the great roaring silence after a book comes out,” he says. “Like, you write the book and the beautiful heartbreak begins. I’m just glad it came out, man.”
They keep coming out. Pain Killersis his fourth novel in the past decade. There’s also been Love Without, a celebrated 2007 collection of short stories (one of which, “Li’l Dickens,” detailing a strange encounter with a not-so-closeted Dick Cheney, debuted in LA Weekly). He’s prolific for any writer, even if he isn’t also writing for film and television, on various essays and nonfiction and a hilarious blog called Post-Young, which looks at the world from the jaundiced eye of an aging hipster.
I wonder what keeps him so committed, especially considering writing novels these days can so often seem like an exercise in masochism or martyrdom.
“Well, if you don’t have a book published until you’re 40 . . .”
“You were 42,” I correct.
“Okay, you know better than me. So much the better, so much the better,” he laughs. “I write like a man being chased.”
There’s plenty of real-life reason for Stahl to feel this way. His father killed himself when he was young, and his mother has battled severe depression most of her life. His self-inflicted, near-death experiences are well-documented. And then, there are the exigencies of middle age.
“My best friend right now, my oldest friend from high school, is dying. I just went to say goodbye to him. He had a melanoma that metastasized and went to his brain,” says Stahl. “It’s very sobering when you reach that age when suddenly people you went to high school with, you know, your asshole buddies from way back when are . . . Everybody in my life has always died like that![Snaps his fingers.] So this, somehow seeing all that is a motivation to either work really fast and do a lot or do nothing at all because of . . . what the fuck? I just write fast because I’m running . . . I have a real sense of mortality and the fact that I kinda shouldn’t be here, you know?”
I first became aware of Stahl in the mid-’90s through a girlfriend who was rapt with his memoir, laughing and gasping in equal measures as she read. In the small-world department, turns out a dear friend happened to be his dear friend and suggested back then that I send a draft of a novel I was working on to Jerry. Why not? I thought, never expecting to hear anything back. Within two weeks I got an earnest and encouraging note back — the sort of thing that can keep an insecure novice going. Those who know Jerry are used to such acts of generosity. If he can help a writer get an agent, a book deal or a blurb, he will. He’s also been known to host a Super Bowl party featuring copious amounts of Indian food and plenty of flatulent friends at his hilltop Mount Washington home.
More importantly, he’s taught creative writing at Sylmar Juvenile Hall, a real-world incarnation of something that’s obvious to anyone who’s read his books. Stahl has a soft spot for the long shot. He’s long been one himself. He grew up just a few miles and worlds away from where I did, outside of Pittsburgh. That’s not the most nurturing place for a budding intellectual, and the town where Stahl grew up, Brookline, is the kind of place that is euphemistically called working-class. As a Jew in an oppressively Catholic ’hood, Stahl spent a good part of his childhood getting beat up for killing Christ. “I must have done it in a blackout,” he jokes.
I ask how that experience informed his writing.
“It’s just that no-bullshit town. It’s not exactly like you feel any entitlement or superiority. I mean the word jag-off[one of Pittsburgh’s finer contributions to the language] says it all,” says Stahl. “It defines me because for many reasons I still feel like an outsider.”
Like many writers, Stahl came upon his craft by process of elimination.
“It was more about the things I knew I didn’t want to do. I would have loved to be a great rock and roll guitarist, but I kind of sucked. I just wanted a job that you could kind of do naked, fucked-up and alone at 3 a.m., and maybe get paid for,” he says. “Reading guys like Nathanael West and all these guys who said shit I couldn’t believe people were allowed to say, Terry Southern and all those guys . . . just did something for me. Writers are badasses to me. You know, Mailer, Pynchon, Tom Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor in her own weird way, they were just subversive individuals and that’s what I wanted. I knew I was never going to be in the gainfully employed world. Put it that way.”
After graduating from Columbia University, Stahl lived in New York City at the Columbus Circle YMCA, which at the time was a far cry from the polished YMCAs of today. He says he was “flailing miserably with some drug issues” while trying to scrabble together a living writing for publications such as The Village Voice, New York Pressand Penthouse, for which he developed a knack for writing fake letters about zany erotic encounters.
“I was building up my résumé at Beaverand Club International, just to impress the NEA when I applied for those grants and didn’t get them years down the road,” he jokes. “Just scuffling.”
But the talent for outré fiction was always there. An early short story he submitted to Hustler was rejected before going on to win a prestigious Pushcart Prize.
“It was for the Bicentennial. It was about a guy whose penis turned into George Washington’s head. Highbrow. Couldn’t be prouder of that one,” he laughs. “I just wrote all the time and lived this deluded, drug-addled life in a five-floor walkup with a bathroom down the hall.”
Stahl came to Los Angeles in the late ’70s when Hustler publisher Larry Flynt moved operations out here after he was shot and paralyzed. The job didn’t last long, but, as anyone who’s read Permanent Midnightknows, he found some bittersweet success in writing for television shows such as Thirtysomething, Moonlightingand Alf. He also wrote six unpublished novels and went deeper into drug addiction before finally getting clean. His memoir rose out of desperation.
“It was really a function of survival. I was having a hard time writing. I hadn’t written for a long time because of all the shit that is kind of associated with me and literally ran into someone on Hollywood Boulevard, Nancy Gottesman, who I’d known from Los Angelesmagazine. I used to write a column for them . . . She said, ‘What the fuck happened to you?’ And, long story short, I ended up writing this thing called ‘Naked Brunch’ for L.A. Styleand somehow an agent found it and after much shucking and jiving, I ended up getting a book deal.”
I ask if he found it ironic that his first major publishing success turned out to be a memoir.
“Totally ironic. I had spent my life using words to hide the truth. My novels were never about me . . . The idea of exposing emotions, pain, heart, in a personal way, was not in my repertoire.”
It is now. Underneath the wild satire and machine-gun-fire humor, Stahl’s novels, especially Pain Killers, are full of the pain and pathos of characters confronting and often being overwhelmed by the indifference, at best, and cruelty, at worst, of life. Manny Rupert, for example, is struggling mightily despite his obvious personal disadvantages to adhere to his own ethics, mangled as they may be, in a country where complicity in such things as Mengele’s research at the Nazi death camps reaches to the highest levels of polite society, and where TV networks turn the travesty of our prison system into entertainment for the masses.
In many regards we live in an Orwellian fever dream and we barely stop to ponder this, let alone skewer it the way Stahl does. “I don’t know if they’re going to put me in the same rack as Noam Chomsky, but in my mind, it’s a political book,” Stahl says.
As we finish our lunch, I tenuously suggest to Stahl that he’s become a sort of éminence grise of L.A. letters, which, to me, signifies something far different and perhaps more interesting than it would in, say, New York.
“If that’s the case, nobody’s told me,” he laughs. “I haven’t seen the official notification of that, but thank you.”
More importantly, he says, “I got this kind of second chance and I want to do something with it. And on another level, writing’s easier than life.”
Originally published in Treats
In a glass-framed photo on a glass desk in a glass-and-concrete house high on a hill is pictured a fit young man with shoulder-length, shaggy hair. The man is resplendently dressed in a white, high-collared long-sleeve shirt, crisp, white slacks and black dress boots — a dandy in waiting, it would seem. The man in the photograph is years — maybe decades — away from his unlikely notoriety, but he already looks famous, like the DNA of a young Paul Simon and Doors-era Val Kilmer somehow collided. In his hand is a leash attached to an equally turned-out Afghan hound. The dog is important, once the love of his life, the man has said. And it was for that dog that this whole thing started.
Another photo catches the eye. The man is naked and bears a resemblance to a young, sun-bronzed Iggy Pop had Iggy decided he didn’t like to sweat. In the picture he is flanked by two topless young women straight out of a California dream of sunshine and free love. Their knees meet above his groin and they smile like the fetching muses they once no doubt were. He stares hungrily at the camera, as if this was serious business. Maybe it was. There have always been fumes of rumors of flings with starlets and dalliances with lonely aristocratic women and mysterious heiresses but Goldstein will only let the pictures do the talking. “That’s me and Jayne Mansfield at the opening of the Whisky a Go Go in 1964,” he says casually. (One such rumor has Mansfield’s husband at the time sending a few goons to break young Jimmy’s legs.) You see, even though James Goldstein is a self-proclaimed “man-about-the-world,” traveling over 300 days of the year — to fashion shows, basketball games, exotic hotels in equally exotic lands — and has hosted some of the more legendary Hollywood parties at his house, no one really knows much about the man. And, it seems, he’s found the perfect persona: to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
There are plenty more photos on display like trophies. Here he is with Spike Lee, Penelope Cruz, Sean Combs, Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, Gisele, Cindy Crawford, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kate Moss, John Galliano . . . In these, he doesn’t look like he did in the earlier photos. Eyebrow-raising haute couture, often crafted from exotic animal skins, has replaced the understated class on display in the photo with the dog. The hunger in the photo with the nubiles is gone, too. Now, he is ripened by sun and age and by being able to have what he wants. The photos are no longer documents of becoming, but evidence of having become.
I meet the man in the photos, James Goldstein, on a brilliant, sun-kissed spring morning at his home on a hillside in Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills. I would come up again weeks later and the sky was equally crystalline, the air breezy, the view pristine. One wonders if the weather is always perfect up here?
Goldstein greets me in a cap, running gear and running shoes, all featuring fluorescent, lime-green highlights. He is small and wiry with a deep tan and long, wispy white hair spilling down from his python-skin cowboy hat; he moves with the air of an alligator in the sun and his words are so carefully chosen that you wonder if they are being meticulously carved, like stone and concrete, in his mind first. His voice is a low, guttural baritone that never loses its monotone rhythm. The house where we meet, his house, is one of modernist John Lautner’s remarkable mid-century Los Angeles residences. It, along with the Chemosphere in Hollywood, Silvertop/Reiner Residence in Silver Lake, the Elrod Residence in Palm Springs, the Garcia House on Mulholland, have become symbolic of a certain sort of Los Angeles dream, be it design or lifestyle or both, which is, of course, as Lautner intended. And the Silver Screen has come a-calling to shoot in these modernistic, almost cave-like structures — namely as dwellings of villains.
Goldstein’s home, known as the Sheats/Goldstein house has been featured in The Big Lebowskiand Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, among many others. Angelina Jolie got semi-naked here for Timothy Hutton in Playing God. It has been speculated that Lautner’s stunningly bold creations attract Hollywood villains because they form perfect repositories for projecting limbic system overreach — flying too close to the sun, as it were. Or, to put it another way, since Hollywood traffics in mostly a puritanical moralism, despite its reputation, anything this good has to be bad. Goldstein, though, is no villain, especially when it comes to stewardship of Lautner’s legacy. He resurrected this remarkable house and, to some degree, Lautner himself. Thanks to Goldstein’s loving attention, this house is now part of the permanent record of aspirational L.A. architecture.
That Goldstein and Lautner would find each other could seem fated if you believed in that kind of stuff. Both grew up idiosyncratic independents in the conservative Midwest and both fell under the spell of Frank Lloyd Wright. Goldstein, the son of a Racine, Wisconsin, department store owner, discovered his passions at an early age. A friend who lived a block away lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright. His father’s store was near the Johnson Wax plant, also designed by Wright. Thus began his appreciation of finer architecture, the modernist Wright buildings standing out from the typically drab constructions in Milwaukee and Chicago.
“Growing up, I was definitely focused on modern design,” says Goldstein. “I was always looking at new buildings.”
We’re sitting on the pool’s concrete deck, the sun is strong, the sky clear and the deck angles out above the horizon toward Century City, where Goldstein made some of his considerable, though somewhat mysterious, fortune. “Real estate investments” is all he’ll say on the subject.
Those early impressions lasted as Goldstein made his way out west as a young adult. “As I moved out here and started traveling to Europe and being exposed to more and more varieties of architecture, I developed an appreciation for old designs that I never had as a boy, but at the same time I wanted to have something thrusting into the future, rather than something from the past.”
I ask Goldstein if there was something in the optimism of Southern California’s embrace of mid-century American modernism that made him want to break from the past, and especially the Gothic Midwest where a 13-year-old Jewish boy who liked to dress in pink suits might seek reinvention in the wide-open West. Goldstein reflexively dismisses the psychobabble, but hints around its margins anyway.
“Nah, I don’t think that was the case,” he says. “I like the clean, minimal look together with the feeling of the future and something that had never been done before,” he says. “I liked the idea of creating something new and I liked the feel of openness, of bringing the outside to the inside. All of those things.”
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