Hot, Sexy Midget
By Bill Kohlhaase
Confuse the demented and downright dirty short stories of Jerry Stahl with those of O. Henry? I don’t think so. But Stahl himself poses the O. Henry comparison in one of the tales that make up his first collection of short stories Love Without.
Stahl, author of a handful of drug-drenched, low-life novels and a celebrated memoir of his struggles with heroin, Permanent Midnight, is a sort of Charles Bukowski for the smack-head generation. O. Henry is the prolific, dead-nearly-a century stylist known to every eighth grade English student for his ironic twists and surprise endings. The difference? You wouldn’t want your eighth-grader reading Stahl.
It’s the element of surprise—and there are lots of them in Stahl’s collection—that has him pondering O. Henry. In a story titled “Gordito,” Stahl waits all of five paragraphs to tell us that the heroine is “Pre-PC, a midget. A stacked half-pint. Knee-high.” Stahl’s dilemma is where to mention it. “March it out in the first sentence, then . . . it’s one of those hot sexy midget stories.” Spring it on your readers later, he says, and surprise: “what is that—O. Henry?”
Stahl is no O. Henry and “Gordito”—no surprise—turns out to be a hot sexy midget story, one whose little lead Puray keeps a blade in her brassiere, is obsessed with Zelda Fitzgerald and likes to grease up a carrot with olive oil to, well . . . I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Many of the stories in Love Without turn on such attractive (or repulsive, take your pick) gimmicks, trading on absurdities and developing whatever wisdom they can muster from the unusual circumstances. A man sodomizes Dick Cheney’s “L’il Dickens” in the back of a Wyoming gun shop. A group of prostitutes take it up the ass while saving their virginity for Jesus. A dying man invites his married son to his nudist retirement community and bequeaths junior his young spouse, Bambi. A 14-year-old has a sexual encounter on a plane with the recently widowed wife of the man who invented panty shields. Like that. Each one invites the same question: where in the story do you put such a twist to avoid overshadowing the story’s larger message? Stahl’s solution? Put it up front.
The danger in all this cleverness is that the larger message may be lost behind the gimmick. In “Gordito,” the mini-she’s full-sized lover discovers he shares certain personality traits with her. In terms of character they’re both “mutants,” despite contrasting physical stature. But you may miss the message because the sex acts, that carrot and the threat of violence are so provocative. Those not skipping ahead to the juicy parts are rewarded with wonderfully concocted observations. “What she gave off was so powerful it stained the air. But it wasn’t a smell, exactly. It was absence. All the space she didn’t take up . . . “
These kinds of revelations are the heart of Stahl’s style. His characters wrestle with identity. In “I’m Dick Felder,” a married dentist with a ten-year-old son and an aging clientele leaves it all behind one day and ends up in a halfway house for runaways. He tries all the things he missed as a youth—drugs, sex with an 18-year-old, a wild haircut—and discovers there’s no turning back.
Humor, not all of it dark, salts the wounds and Stahl’s a master at creating crack-up visuals. Picture “Gordito”‘s diminutive sex-pot standing on a bus bench exposing her thong and pubic hair “thick as Castro’s beard.” The Dick Cheney encounter runs along on a single joke as the VP and his conquest discuss barrel length, heft and “astronomical” rates of fire.
While Stahl’s best scenarios have to do with the degradation and drug use that mark his other works, his most thoughtful pieces are seen through the eyes of children. In “Cossack Justice” an eight-year-old is left to an aunt and uncle. His mother’s final act is to leave a mannequin’s hand in her abandoned purse. “On Water Shoulders” suggests Stahl’s own childhood. A boy, bathed too lovingly by his mother, wonders if his parents are imposters. This previously unpublished piece echoes as a child’s tender cry for love from someone who can’t quite trust its offer.
The stories in this volume don’t successfully coalesce into a seamless whole. They range too widely in tone and temper. But that can be excused, considering that they’re pulled from some 25 years of writing. What does bring them together—their insight, their humor and an undercurrent of perversion—distinguishes them as something totally different; ironic and full of surprise. Even though you wouldn’t want your eighth-grader to read them, they’d probably learn something and enjoy it. O. Henry would, too.
Love Without: Stories by Jerry Stahl; Open City Books, paperback, 179 pages, $14