There's a quote from the mighty Anthony Bourdain on the cover of my review copy of Pain Killers, Jerry Stahl's latest novel, that says: "Jerry Stahl should either get the Pulitzer Prize or be shot down in the street like a dog." I'd suggest that Stahl hope for a third option, because he's certainly not going to win the Pulitzer with this effort (and frankly, were I Bourdain, I'd want any implication of an endorsement of Pain Killers quashed immediately).
I ordered Pain Killers because of some solid reviews, and because the plot sounded suitably off-the-wall and fun: on-again-off-again drug addict Manuel (Manny) Rupert gets hired to pose as a drug counselor in San Quentin to figure out if someone incarcerated there is actually who he claims to be: the uber-evil Nazi Josef Mengele. Along the way he crosses paths with a crazy television producer, a Jewish member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison guard that wants a sex change operation, and more than a few other oddballs. Now, I'll admit that the plot sounds a little contrived (o.k., a LOT contrived), but I thought that if the author could pull it off, it could be a fun read.
No such luck.
Pain Killers comes across as nothing so much as an attempt to channel Chuck Palahniuk (using characters you might find in an Elmore Leonard novel), and it fails miserably. The first-person narrative, written in Manny's voice, feels incredibly forced; the author seems far more concerned with thinking up wacky characters and finding quirky ways to phrase things than with writing a good story. The plot falls apart almost instantaneously, with absurd twists and character behavior that require superhuman suspension of disbelief. And Stahl begins more than a few plot lines that he simply walks away from. I don't want to post any spoilers (though if you're smart you'll avoid the book, so it wouldn't matter) but I can think of at least half a dozen events in the book that are major issues to Manny, none of which are ever resolved; Stahl appears to simply forget that they were ever brought up. And then there's Mengele's past: perhaps to make the book "edgy" Stahl also includes copious descriptions of hideous Nazi experiments. But, more often than not, they just feel like fascinated voyeurism rather than devices designed to advance plot or character development. Look, I'm not squeamish in the least, but I do expect passages of any sort to serve the story rather than give the impression of an author simply trying to gross me out or build a reputation.
Finally, there's Manny, whom I found completely unlikeable. I don't have a problem with flawed characters: let them shoot dope, let them have weird quirks, the more the merrier - but that's not the problem with Manny. Because while Stahl seems to be trying to give us a fallible tough guy, maybe Hammer or Marlowe with a dope problem, that's not what we get. Manny is neither a tough-guy nor a man driven by doing the right thing, he's just a creep. Stahl seems to be trying for oddball black humor and satire (both of which I love), but has no skills in either. Pain Killers is neither funny nor satirical, it's just bad.
So to sum it up: forced narrative + poorly drawn and unbelievable characters + ridiculous plot developments + Nazi medical experiments + forgotten plot points + unlikeable protagonist = too many hours that would have been better spent doing almost anything other than reading Pain Killers.