There is a recent generation of novelists raised more on television and film than literature, their muse more John Waters than Frank Waters. Jerry Stahl, with Perv, his first novel, reveals himself to be one such writer. In reading this book, one would not be surprised to learn that Stahl cut his teeth on writing for television; in fact his first book was a memoir, Permanent Midnight, dealing with that career and the complications arising from his heroin addiction.
As the story begins, it is 1970 and we meet 16-year-old Bobby Stark frantically losing his virginity to a fiery and easy "townie" girl, with some of his buddies looking on. As may be gleaned by this scene and the book's title, what follows is truly a coming-of-age story, in the ejaculatory sense. As becomes his modus operandi, Bobby is literally caught with his pants down, by the girl's father, a one-armed psychotic barber.
Stahl is at times a master of dark humor, and is best in this scene, which portrays the psychological standoff between Bobby and the barber (the other characters have left). The barber toys with Bobby, a cat with a mouse, providing Bobby the promise of painful death or deep friendship. They drink together and confide secrets to each other, and the tension is breathtaking. Hilarious and terrifying, the reader is almost afraid to laugh for fear of drawing attention to himself. The passage is that well written. If Huck Finn grew up in the '60s, he would be Bobby.
The book is filled with funny scenes and characters. The adults are mostly broadly-drawn comical authority figures, imaginative and not subtle. In one scene, Bobby is caught in an apartment laundry room sniffing an elderly woman's panties:
"You know," she sighed, after everything was just about back in the basket. "I should be shocked, but, accch ... you kids today! I see you there, sniffing my underpants, and I think to myself, 'Dolores, you're sixty-eight years old, what do you know? Is it a drug thing? Is it some kind of free love? Are you from one of those cults?'"
Bobby's mother is a mentally ill mess: "Once in a while, Mom went country-western on pills-and-alcohol. Out of nowhere, she'd start tossing off 'darlin's' and honey-chiles' like Patsy Cline's neurotic cousin, Patsy Clinestein."
Stahl's sense of humor is sick, and captures rather well a childhood morbidity. For example, this commentary on Bobby's father, who killed himself by stepping in front of a streetcar, and whose hand was severed clean, found still clutching a magazine:
In the Dead Fathers Club, the rule was include every detail. Especially the bad ones, the ones you don't want to think about, let alone repeat out loud. When I first told my buddies how Dad's hand flew off, still holding the Newsweek, Tennie actually applauded. "Smart move just snaggin' the mag, pardner. Say you bag the hand, thinkin' to shellac it and pass it on, for an heirloom, like. You'd probably end up with poison oak, yourself. Then what Trust me, you don't wanna catch an itch from a dead guy, especially your old man. ... Every time you scratch yourself, you'd be thinkin', 'My poor Daddy can't scratch nothin' anymore!' Imagine! Slap calamine on that rash, you're wipin' out the last thing your daddy left you. It'd be like killing the poor fuck all over again."
Stahl seems to have kept a record of his childhood recollections. When Bobby is taken, as a child, to a urologist, he finds out what adult diapers are. Prior to that, he'd "spotted 'adult diapers' in the drugstore ... and always wondered if they came with 'adult playpens.' " We also see Stahl's experience with heroin which, "spread that soft blanket over everything. But once that blanket was ripped off, it took a layer of skin with it, leaving nothing but nerve ends screaming in the breeze."
This type of detail makes the story seem, as many first novels are, at least somewhat autobiographical. While giving the story much of its "ring true" quality, too many details also slog the book down. Stahl seems to want to express, through Bobby, every observation and feeling he's ever had. Bobby's cloying introspection slows the story down, undermines its comic impact, and hurts an otherwise high-energy first-person narrative. A successful comic novel should never outstay its welcome.
At times, Stahl loses his grip on childhood, his characters becoming too observationally sophisticated for their ages, suffering from Dawson's Creek syndrome. Bobby describes his love interest:
The good part, Michelle was actually laughing. All that hardness left her when she giggled, and I realized why I loved her all over again. There was a funny little girl inside the tough-as-nails chick she tried to foist on the world. I felt almost privileged she'd let me see it. I felt like she let me in.
That this book is not for everyone is best illustrated by a scene in which a pair of menacing, drug-addled hippies, named Varnish and Meat, drug and rape Bobby and Michelle, a highly uncomfortable extended ballet of sex and violence, like a scene from the movie Blue Velvet. It is an unflinchingly hellish orgy, shocking and funny.
Oddly, Bobby eventually reveals himself to be a fairly normal, fucked-up, pot-smoking teenager. He has the same desires and suffers from the same fears as most people (including the fear of living at home for the rest of his life, as embodied by a guy in his town named Herb Pazahowski, a recurring apparition, haunting Bobby like a not-so-Christmas Carol).
We like Bobby and have empathy for him. He is the story's hero. Most people would probably react to Bobby's situations in much the same ways he does. We're all Pervs and Bobby is the Everyperv.