There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Jerry Stahl’s breakthrough memoir, 1995’s Permanent Midnight, recounts his addiction to heroin during a period in which he worked as the screenwriter for the TV show ALF. It was a dark and desperate tale, yet it was infused with comic absurdity. Stahl’s latest, Love Without, is a collection of short stories written in the past 30 years, and his flair for the tragicomic is well-suited to the short form. He creates sad, adrift characters, often in grim situations, but there’s always an ALF factor, a hint of absurdity that gives the reader just enough breathing room. The tie that binds the stories is sexual obsessiveness, and while “normal” is a relative term when it comes to sex, some of the acts in Love Without might make even Dan Savage raise an eyebrow. (Stahl began his career writing the letters section for Penthouse, an experience he’s apparently put to good use.) “Gordito” tells of a man’s love affair with an abusive midget who is obsessed with Zelda Fitzgerald; “Pure” features a born-again Christian prostitute who, in an attempt to maintain her virginity, practices vaginal—and only vaginal—abstinence. (Stahl writes, “Her buttocks felt as overworked and shunned as Cinderella. As Pastor Bob liked to say: You ladies have one blessed orifice and one where the devil makes his home.”) But while sex abounds in Love Without, the stories aren’t necessarily erotic. Take, for example, “The Age of Love,” in which a 14-year-old boy has his first sexual encounter on an airplane, with an older woman who is returning from her husband’s funeral. Her husband’s legacy is all she wants to discuss as the boy’s hand makes its way up her skirt; he was the inventor of panty shields. The stories are conspicuously American in both setting and characters, and Stahl occasionally ventures into political satire: “Li’l Dickens” begins with the line: “I did not mean to sodomize Dick Cheney.” He sets other stories at the uncomfortable edge of a waning era, where the characters are just beginning to fall out of touch and tend to favor dated technologies—a Princess phone, a Buick LeSabre—as they try to navigate a changing sexual and social landscape. The characters seem lost in their own skin, uncertain of how to respond to aggressive post-hippie teenagers (“I’m Dick Felder!”) or a colony of jocular nudists (“Finnegan’s Waikiki”). The book’s America is stark and confusing, and its citizens are nearing obsolescence. Stahl is less successful when he ventures into experimental waters. “Twilight of the Stooges,” a hallucinogenic story about an addict getting high with his elderly dealer, the wife of a dead ’50s TV star, is interspersed with stream of conscious-style paragraphs that verge on self-indulgent. But Stahl metes out desperation and dark humor in just the right amounts, applying clarity and sympathy to subjects many would consider marginal or disturbing. It’s obvious that he relates to his characters, weirdos though they may be; it’s obvious, too, that he thinks the reader, with a little help, could relate to them as well.