Jerry Stahl believes it's impossible to shock an audience anymore, but in his new novel, "Happy Mutant Baby Pills" (Harper Perennial, $14.99 pp.), he comes close.
His main character, Lloyd, falls in love with a murderous woman named Nora who wants to take down Monsanto and Dow Chemical. After an absurd, paranoid and somehow comic murder spree, they decide to create a mutant baby in protest of capitalism by ingesting as many prescriptions, GMOs and pesticide-laden products as possible — while shooting endless amounts of heroin.
During the lunch rush at the McDonald's on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, Stahl — an L.A.-based author and screenwriter — walks into fast-food nation with a jacket draped over his shoulder and sits in a booth next to two elderly Latinos who probably weren't expecting to overhear a discussion on heroin and chemical paranoia. Stahl says it's the first time he has set foot in McDonald's since he worked at one. That was back in Phoenix in '88, when he was trying to get clean after a long battle with addiction.
"Because I worked [at McDonald's] I feel a rush of gratitude that I get to wear my own clothes," says Stahl with such a deadpan tone it's hard to figure out if he's being ironic or honest. He's dressed in all black, and his daughter's name, Nico, is tattooed on his bicep. "I don't have to wear the red and gray polyester stripes and that little shame hat that I used to wear back when I was 38 years old."
All around us Angelenos slurp down what Stahl calls "hydrogenated soybean, GMO-death powder," and he spews an endless lexicon of difficult-to-pronounce chemicals present in the average American diet. When Stahl was working at McDonald's, he felt like he had no future. But he found success when his memoir "Permanent Midnight" — which documented his double life as a television writer for "Alf" and a junkie — became a hit and was turned into a 1998 movie featuring Ben Stiller. Since then he's written HBO's "Hemingway & Gellhorn," blockbuster movies such as "Bad Boys II" and novels like "I, Fatty" and "Perv — A Love Story."
"Happy Mutant Baby Pills," his eighth novel, provides a scathing look at the world of pesticides, over-the-counter medication, Occupy L.A. and the toxicity of just simply being alive. As in many of Stahl's previous works, the narrator is a junkie, and his hallucinatory and neurotic voice is part of the hook.
But unlike most of Stahl's other characters, Lloyd has an interesting and overlooked set of skills: He writes the "pharmacopy" and the side effects on prescription medications. He's the scribe who makes anal leakage sound like the residue of a functioning and healthful life.
"Every time I read the label on something," Stahl says, discussing the inspiration for Lloyd, "whether it's a cereal box or directions to a flea enema, I realize some guy gets up in the morning who wants to be a writer, and he took this gig because it's writing … that kind of writing fascinates me."
Stahl also grew interested in what he calls "petro-chemical invaders" last year when his wife was pregnant. At the same time, Stahl began a clinical trial for a new drug for the hepatitis C infection at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was dying, and the trial drug came with its own side effects.
"At that time I was told you can't touch a pregnant woman," Stahl says. "If your wife so much as touches your sweat while you're on these pills, your baby is going to be born polka dotted with tricycle arms. So she had to leave town, because I was so toxic. The difference is that I signed up for that, and the rest of the world, the rest of the time, it's involuntary."
The new novel grew out of Stahl's fear of bringing a child into a world where everything was toxic, from the chemicals found in breast milk to the newly barred trans fats in fast food to his own sweat. It's a fear of the world that manifests itself in Nora, the radical woman who literally shoots pesticides into her vaginal canal to create the perfect screaming "mutando" baby that would be a crowning metaphor for the rampant destruction and chemical warfare being waged on daily life.
There are some great dissonances in Stahl's novel that point toward a larger complexity. For example, Nora and Lloyd are protesting the toxic world of capitalism, but they are pumping illegal drugs into their bodies with reckless abandon. And while Stahl's character, Lloyd, writes about side effects, Stahl himself was experiencing side effects of his own from the trial drug. He says he felt like he was taking bad acid for several months, and it put him in an altered state as he was writing the novel.
"My life was completely shot," Stahl says. "I was heading into cirrhosis." Miraculously, Stahl says he is better now, and except for the blood tests every six months, he considers himself cured.
In "Happy Mutant Baby Pills," Stahl doesn't provide any fixes to the petro-chemical invaders, just points out the complicated extremes of modern living. Chemicals are destroying our bodies and our planet, but the same medications that could harm his own child may be the reason he'll be alive to watch his daughter grow older and discover her own way to live in a toxic world.
Lapin is a writer in Los Angeles.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun