Jerry Stahl has written short stories, novels, TV sitcoms, CSI episodes, sex columns, memoirs, and Hollywood action movies but never has he tried his hand at being a "Side Effects Man."
In his wickedly insightful novel Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Stahl gives voice to a chatty heroin-addicted narrator named Lloyd who crafts gruesome "side effects may include" voice-over copy for TV pharmaceutical commercials.
Among Lloyd's greatest fictional hits: he came up with the phrase anal leakage and created the ailment known as Restless Leg Syndrome. "Invent the disease, sell the cure," laughs Stahl. "There may be some sort of Mad Men-adjacent world out there where people call themselves Side Effects Men, but I made that up. However I do know that my attorney's best friend majored in Latin and got a job creating these soothing, serene, vaguely Latinesque names for whatever hellacious combinations of chemicals they were slinging at you."
Happy Mutant Baby Pills (out Nov. 5 from Harper Perennial) follows Lloyd as he hooks up with sullen greeting card-writing goth girl Nora on a Greyhound bus. Sharing her unexpectedly encyclopedic mastery of medical arcana, Nora sucks Lloyd into a bad behavior vortex that includes death-by-paperclip, sex worker-inflicted taser torture and a toxic assortment of FDA-approved consumer products.
Stahl says, "This isn't a moral position I'm taking. It's more: stop and look at what's happening. Look at the little town where they manufactured Teflon and now adults and kids are getting this weird kidney cancer. Look at the Canadian doctor Gabor Maté, who's done all these experiments about the effects of putting little kids on Adderall and Ritalin. As our actual physical reality deteriorates, it's like there's a proportional increase in the extent to which our pharmaceutically temperature-controlled psyches are being controlled. 'Well the environment's dying, so we may as well fuck around with the internal environment so it's all tolerable.'"
Stahl began researching pharmaceutical side effects after he started a trial drug program to treat Hepatitis C caused by the heroin habit chronicled in his memoir Permanent Midnight. His girlfriend had recently become pregnant.
"Upon taking this first pill they said, 'Oh by the way, if your girlfriend so much as touches a drop of your sweat, your kid's going to be blind and grow this, like, purple Ron Perlman head. That was heavy. I began investigating (the pharmaceutical industry) because I was about to have a kid and it seemed more urgent."
Nora lambasts everything from weed killer Round Up, excitotoxins, bisphenols and grief reliever Viibrd to former Monsanto exec Michael R. Taylor's appointment to a senior advisor post at the Food and Drug Administration. By the end of Happy Mutant Baby Pills, over-the-counter cleaning products have caused far more damage than the illegal drugs that Nora injects into her toe.
Stahl explains, "I wanted to create a story around the information so I needed an entertaining, sort of riveting delivery system which turned out to be this woman Nora." Stahl based the character on a number of women. He notes, "I did a lot of research over the years that I didn't know was research at the time. The result of that vast and ill-considered experimentation was this character. Crazy or not crazy, Nora is obsessed with all these things that I wanted to say."
Stahl peppers Happy Mutant Baby Pills with plenty of autobiographically-based tangents, as when alter ego Lloyd pitches an "infantilism" storyline to CSI producers about powerful men who like to dress up in diapers. Stahl did in fact write a CSI episode called King Baby for the CBS TV series after a serendipitous encounter with the show's original star William Petersen.
"I joined the Hollywood YMCA to take showers when I had no place to live," recalls Stahl. "I was in the sauna one day and Billy Petersen came in. We started talking and he told me his daughter liked 'Permanent Midnight,' and that he was going to be doing this TV show, could he call me?" Two years later, Stahl got a phone call from CSI executives inviting him to pitch ideas. Stahl laughs, "I guess you could say it was one of the rare nude encounters in Hollywood that actually resulted in work."
During his tenure at CSI, Stahl also wrote a plushie and furries show about people who dress up as cartoon characters and animals. His transgendered sex crime Ch-Ch-Changes episode drew a record-breaking 31 million viewers.
Stahl says, "When you break CSI down, it's completely maniacal content but rendered into this family-friendly concoction.There's a Mylanta commercial in between corpses. I think that's genius."
Both CSI and Stahl's new novel share a penchant for weaving real-world data nuggets into seriously twisted scenarios. Stahl says, "In Happy Mutant Baby Pills, I had information that I wanted to convey in as loose and entertaining a way as possible. That's also what they do at CSI except they keep it very tight. It's almost like a mathematical formula. I'd come in with a concept and there'd be a whole panel of experts in that room with the blackboard helping you crack that story, getting your third act break and coming up with an ending. I tip my hat to those people for making my insanity gel into a compelling hour of television."
Though Stahl regards himself as a novelist first and foremost, his mordant first-person yarns consistently resonate with edgy television and movie talents.
Ben Stiller, who earlier starred in the 1998 movie version of Permanent Midnight, has already optioned Happy Mutant Baby Pills. Johnny Depp acquired rights to Stahl's I, Fatty about the rise and scandalous fall of silent movie comedian Fatty Arbuckle. And Larry Charles, the nervy Borat director, is working with Stahl on a cable series adaptation of Painkillers, centered on Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. "It's the story that's just begging to be told," Stahl half-jokes.
Stahl's Hollywood cachet has been a long time coming. He wrote six unpublished novels and worked at McDonald's "at the ripe age of 38," before finally selling his first book. He advises, "If you write like I write—bottom line, to get the voices out of my head—then just keep doing it and the rest will take care of itself."
In the case of Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Stahl's voice rings loud and clear from the get-go. The book begins "Once upon a time, I was a fucking maniac," followed by a 237-word roller coaster of a sentence that grabs the reader by the collar and doesn't let go.
Stahl says, "No matter what the genre, voice, to me, is the most interesting thing. I don't really care about the subject. If I love the voice, I'll follow it anywhere."