Friday, December 27, 2013

Fiction: Happy Mutant Baby Pills by Jerry Stahl

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steven Nester, a resident of Austerlitz, New York, and the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Robert Stone’s Death of the Black-Haired Girl.)

Jerry Stahl throws a bucket of acid in the face of corporate America with Happy Mutant Baby Pills (Harper Perennial), his rant-raving eighth novel. Stahl’s message is simple but horrifying: today’s corporations are poisoning the users of their products, yet the victims don’t seem to care. For instance: As long as jet planes can get us around the country quickly (as they spew contrails of deadly poisons into the friendly skies), and chemical companies can keep our lawns weed-free (while poisoning us), have no fear. Dow and Monsanto might be filling our body with carcinogens, Stahl tells us, but Big Pharma will gladly sell us the cure. And if there’s nothing wrong with you? Well, then, Big Pharma will happily invent a syndrome for you. Happy Mutant Baby Pills is Silent Spring on hard drugs and attitude, only instead of birds dropping from the sky it’s the human race that’s going to take the hit.

The plot and characters here are as edgy and disturbing as one could expect from Stahl (the author of Permanent Midnight, I, Fatty, etc.). Lloyd is a neurotic and self-loathing heroin addict who writes the fine print for pharmaceutical companies, stating that the wonder drug you might be taking could also produce birth defects, make you cranky, turn you into a werewolf, you name it. As a junkie, Lloyd will do whatever and go wherever is necessary to keep the drugs coming, which makes him the perfect follower; and fortunately for the reader, drugs don’t dull his intelligence or his outrage.

Lloyd meets a woman named Nora at an Occupy L.A. event. She tells him that she writes sarcastic greeting-card messages. Lloyd falls for her. He ends up murdering an innocent man in a bathroom stall at her behest, and the pair then take it on the lam. Lloyd is the inebriated yet cerebral tour guide in this picaresque road trip of a novel, which gives Stahl plenty of opportunities to ridicule everything he observes.

Nora is the one driving Happy Mutant Baby Pill’s plot, and when she reveals her agenda to Lloyd, readers will watch in morbid fascination as the train jumps the track in slow motion. Readers are also likely to thank God that Nora is nothing but a fictional character. For it turns out that Nora is pregnant. She tells Lloyd she plans to call attention to the danger of consumer chemicals on humans by ingesting everything she can get her hands on to create a mutated baby, “one hundred percent USDA approved.” As hideous as it sounds, the humor prevails. “If this were NASCAR, I could have a sponsor name on every deformity, one per tumor,” says Nora.

The anger in these pages is righteous, and the scolding and bile are tempered by absurdity. Stahl, whose style is hallucinatory and searing, belongs in company with other American satirists, his work comparing nicely with the yucks of Sinclair Lewis, the anger of Lenny Bruce and the surreal schtick of William S. Burroughs. He understands the same thing those giants did: If you’re not going to entertain, no one’s going to stick around for the tongue-lashing. The same thing applies to honesty. Stahl’s self-deprecation is legendary and he never sacrifices artistic merit for speaking the truth.

When Stahl riffs on dope addiction he’s unbeatable, even though its ground already covered. The genius of Stahl is that he never repeats himself. Like William Faulkner’s well-trodden Yoknapatawpha County, Stahl’s riffs seem new with every book.

Fact and fiction are continuously conflated within the plot turns of Happy Mutant Baby Pills, including a torturous encounter with a real California sheriff’s deputy who allegedly fired a tear-gas canister at an Occupy Berkeley protester, nearly killing him. The book’s title reminds one of Mad Man actress January Jones, whose strange-but-true homemade vitamin pills -- concocted from her newborn baby’s placenta -- sound kookily innocuous when compared with how Big Pharma plays the game. The seeming insanity of the multibillion-dollar prescription-drug business is pointed out by Stahl’s sounding off on antidepressants that can cause users to turn suicidal: “I have the condition, I want to get rid of it, so I take the medication to make it go away and -- Pfizer meet Job! -- inflict upon myself the exact thing I want to eradicate.” Take Lyrica, for instance, the treatment for restless knee syndrome. One of the side-effects is “feeling high.” Who in these casually scrupulous times, Stahl muses, wouldn’t admit to restless knees just to catch a buzz?

“What are we now,” Stahl proposes, “but our symptoms?” Throughout Happy Mutant Baby Pills Nora and Lloyd ingest vast quantities of illegal drugs. What they are trying to medicate is the effects of the human condition -- the pain, uncertainty, personal demons -- and it’s a long and varied list, as everyone knows. So, I guess, they’re just human, and they need really strong medicine in order to cope. Lloyd puts it all in perspective: “Heroin. Because once you shed your dignity, everything’s a little easier.”

One last thing: If you’ve been pacing at the maternity room door for the last several paragraphs, I’m not going to open it for you. But I will say that, like many satirists, Stahl is an optimist at heart. After Nora’s baby girl is born, Lloyd opines that “if ten years from now, it turns out she can repel fleas, is that so bad?” ◊

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