BOOK REVIEW: Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl

Before self-publishing made it possible for anyone to share their drug battle with the world, and before those brave enough to fight the stigma against addiction and “recover out loud,” there was Permanent Midnight. This memoir by Jerry Stahl was released in 1995 but still reigns as the king of all drug memoirs. The twentieth anniversary edition is now available with a foreward by Nic Sheff, the subject of the book and film Beautiful Boy.

For those who believe the opioid crisis is something new, think again. Prescription drugs, crack, coke, meth, and heroin were just as prevalent in the 90s as now. And if we look back over the decades, we will see that each age has its own generation of addicts, each one with their own voice.

In Permanent Midnight, Stahl frames his tale from his present-day situation–stuck in a hospital bed wearing a diaper, having just had his testicles operated on for a cyst that was created by the toxic residue leftover from years of shooting drugs. In this moment of pain and regret, he decides to purge his sins. This is the cue for the reader to strap himself in, grab the Kleenex, and perhaps keep a barf bag handy.

Stahl takes up and down the timeline of his life, interweaving pieces of his gloomy childhood with wild anecdotes throughout his writing career. After winning the Pushcart Prize at the age of twenty-three, you would think a fresh, talented Stahl would use that as a stepping stone to a bright literary future. Instead, he begins a solid career in writing porn.

I’d based my entire life on the premise that rules were bullshit—as were the people who upheld them. The trouble was, I’d never found anything but bullshit of my own to replace theirs.

Stahl bounces between writing gigs, just trying to keep his pockets full enough for the next fix. During his forays, we meet big names like Larry Flint from Penthouse and a creepy and sadistic young Mickey Rourke. We also get intimate with addicts, hookers, and dealers that are legendary in their own sordid worlds.

Stahl meets a British expat who is looking to marry for a green card and walks down the aisle with her for three grand. His new bride also has connections in the industry, and she gets Stahl his lucky break into the TV biz. Soon, he’s making the money and driving the car, but his mental and physical condition deteriorates. We follow him as he shovels his junk-soaked lines to shows as wholesome Alf, Thirty-something, and Moonlighting while his self-loathing grows with every shot of dope.

The thing is, all my heroes were junkies. Lenny Bruce, Keith Richards, William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis, Hubert Selby Jr.… These guys were cool. They were committed. They would not have been caught dead doing an ALF episode.

In between, Stahl periscopes us to his boyhood where humiliation and inadequacy reign. Affection is withheld. Tension weighs on the household like air made of lead. Stahl recounts a bizarre case of child abuse by his matronly babysitter using Jujubes, which just might be the most disturbing scene in the book. Then there is his father’s suicide, and his mother’s attempted one to add to the bleak family history.

We watch Stahl bumble as a terrible husband, boyfriend, and father. He miraculously keeps his addiction hidden most of the time, living two separate lives, each a shadow of the other, but there are moments he relives with the women in his life—his girlfriend, a random stranger, his baby daughter—that are so beautifully profound and moving that all you can feel is awe.

We were more than lovers now, or we were less. We were two souls so gone on loss and panic and flat-out fear, they did not even know if they were making love or dying.

This horrific, naked tale of self-destruction is not easy reading. What happens to an addict’s poisoned body is the stuff of horror films, and Stahl writes about it in grotesque detail. It’s as if he is dying while he’s alive. We can only bear witnessing this slow rot because of his eloquent prose, his uproarious humor, and moments of poignance that feel like a punch in the throat.

What is heroin, really, but every junkie’s teddy bear? What makes a soul feel all snuggly and cutesy-poo… Can you understand this? Shooting dope is all about getting warm and fuzzy. Dependably so.

IV drugs users are even a pariah amongst their own kind, and Stahl draws a painfully human example of how a normal, awkward middle-upper-class Jewish kid can go down the road to ruin. Rarely has an author been so generous with his inner battle.

No writer since has synthesized the addiction experience so intensively, so honestly, and with so much heart.

Jerry Stahl

Jerry Stahl is an American novelist and screenwriter who changed the world of literature and addiction writing with his 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight, which was made into a major motion picture of the same name starring Ben Stiller. The book was released in 2015 with a foreward written by Nic Sheff. Stahl’s also the author of Perv—a Love Story, Pain KillersPlainclothes Naked, and I, Fatty. He has written extensively for film and television, and is now working on a book based on his Vice series A Tour Of Hell, From Hell about his visit to holocaust death camps.

Reviewed by Christa Wojo

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