Skags to Riches

Say you're some hotshot Hollywood producer who wants to churn out the next big, edgy drug flick. You've already gone the logical route and cast Johnny Depp, but the script to your nascent narco movie feels pretty white-bread and smacks more of Go than Blow.

Whaddaya do? If you're across the pond, maybe you'd bring in Irvine Welsh, but if you're in L.A., you'd ring up Jerry Stahl, the former-heroin-addict-turned-hipster-novelist-and occasional-screenwriter, who's helped add street cred to flicks like Bad Boys II and is currently finishing up writing a remake of 1981's Sharky's Machine.

"I'm starting to think I'm in Hollywood's Rolodex under 'weird drug guy,'" says Stahl, who'll read selections from his latest novel, I, Fatty, this weekend at Perihelion Arts. "They call me to get that air of authenticity, I suppose. It's a great career move having 'junkie' on your résumé."

Stahl's perverse flair for all things seedy and grisly started early on in his career, as he not only wrote for Penthouse Forum, but penned the early '80s cult porno Café Flesh. These murky themes have also found their way into his books (Perv: A Love Story and the autobiographical Permanent Midnight) and the four episodes of CSI he's authored.

A lot of Stahl's sordid perspective springs from the personal hell he survived during a downward spiral with his $6,000-a-week heroin habit, causing him to lose his job as a highly paid scripter for shows like Moonlighting and Twin Peaks. While he admits "it's always good to finish a book," he doesn't look upon his art as a cathartic exorcising of his personal demons.

"I don't [know] if it's my demons or even if I have demons. I think basically it's like Hubert Selby [author of Requiem for a Dream] once said, 'You think you're all fucked up and dark and edgy when you're loaded, but then you realize when you're clean, that's when you really see what's in there, and it can be terrifying,'" he says. "Whether that's a demon or a centimeter of your cerebellum, it's hard to say."

In some ways, Stahl's fall from grace mimics that of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the subject of his latest novel. The corpulent star of slapstick silent films, who had his own battles with drug and alcohol addiction, was fodder for the very first celebrity scandal after he was charged with the rape and murder of 25-year-old struggling actress Virginia Rappe in 1921. Arbuckle was eventually found innocent (after three trials), but went from being one of the film industry's highest-paid actors to working under the pseudonym "Will B. Good." I, Fatty is a fictionalized memoir of Arbuckle's life as told to his butler in exchange for a fix.

While Stahl's own drama didn't reach the sensationalistic lows of the feeding frenzy surrounding Fatty's scandal, Stahl says there are some similarities (such as getting stopped and searched by the LAPD in front of Arbuckle's former mansion during the heroin years). The 50-year-old won't turn his public appearances into a "Just Say No" campaign, though.

"You don't want to forget where you came from, but, you know, I hate talking about that shit 'cause it always sounds like you're preaching, and that's the last fucking thing I want to do."

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.