At the center of many good hard-boiled novels is an elusive object of pursuit, à la The Maltese Falcon. But in the case of Plainclothes Naked -- wherein author Jerry Stahl blends gruesome but slapstick violence, bizarre scenarios and perversely witty writing, then sprinkles it liberally with crack -- the sought-after item in question forces your mind to go where you don't want it to go: straight to the president's privates.
Believe it. The crooks in Stahl's latest book are trying to track down a photo of George W. Bush exposing himself -- with a smiley face tattooed on his balls. Talk about an unexpected plot twist.
With a sort of literary "no pain, no gain" gusto, the author goes for the reader's funny bone via the jugular vein. Stahl's vivid, street-smart prose is fast-paced and truly comical, which makes it incredibly difficult to put the book down even in the middle of shocking scenes that verge on stomach-turning. Ever had that can't-stop-staring-at-a-car-wreck feeling? It's that, with a smirk.
Stahl is fully aware of the strangely magnetic effect his writing has on readers. "With my books, people don't know whether they're supposed to laugh or freak out," he says. "Then when they laugh, they feel vaguely disturbed."
Plainclothes Naked contains plenty of fodder for un-PC laughs, starting with the duo of cracked-out evildoers who want to use the picture of Dubya's package to blackmail the GOP. Tony Zank, the menace who hatches the plan, won't let anyone get in the way of his scheme -- even his own elderly mom. His sidekick McCardle, "a Dean Martin look-alike, if Dean Martin had been African-American," would rather be a lover than a fighter, if it weren't for the shovel murder he committed that got him on America's Most Wanted. The two are tracked by junkie turned gumshoe Manny Rubert, whose ex-wife is not only the town's mayor but also the other subject in the naughty photo of the Prez. Rubert digs into another investigation, a case of death by Drano-soaked Lucky Charms, and falls for the victim's wife Tina, a tough and gorgeous murderess.
Stahl insists that his characters aren't outlandish, that they exist in lurid worlds he's experienced. "You write what you survive, basically," he explains. His first book, Permanent Midnight, is a memoir of heroin addiction and proof that he's seen the darker things in life.
He draws no distinction between penning true tales and twisted fiction; it all comes from the same pool of inspiration. "The best advice I ever got about writing was from this great, great novelist, this black humorist from the '60s named Bruce Jay Friedman, who said, If you write a sentence that makes you squirm, keep going,'" says Stahl. "So basically I just squirmed my way through three books so far." With greedy delight, so have his devoted fans.