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January 20, 2009

Review of Permanent Midnight: A Memoir by Jerry Stahl

While waiting in the doctor’s office today, I finally had a chance to sit and finish Permanent Midnight: A Memoir by Jerry Stahl. I had been reading it for a couple of weeks, and what had begun as excitement had slowly turned into impatience, and then sheer annoyance. Normally I enjoy these types of books; the Sociologist in me (class of ’05, go Badgers!) loves true-life stories about the Human Condition, replete with suffering, despair, and ultimately redemption.

Permanent Midnight was certainly full of suffering and despair, but it was never fully clear to me where such suffering and despair originated. There were hints of an emotionally-absent father and a somewhat tyrannical mother, but nothing really jumped out at me as The Cause – maybe for Mr. Stahl there wasn’t one. In all honesty, The Cause seemed to be that while he wanted to be a writer, he was never fully satisfied with the writing gigs he obtained, being rather “above” them; thus, he turned to drugs to allow himself to be “low” enough to write for such hit tv shows as Moonlighting and thirtysomething. How noble of you, Mr. Stahl, to use illicit drugs to create entertainment for your lowly audience. Better to have no Cause (like Mr. Frey) than such a lousy one. Forgive me, but I found it hard to summon any real emotion while reading this book, beyond bewilderment and annoyance.

Mr. Stahl does attempt to write this in some sort of chronological order, but skips around a great deal to little side stories, vignettes here and there; while some of these little stories were interesting and moving (getting busted with your infant daughter in the car?), they weren’t enough to keep the story going. Each of these moments, good in their own right, were overshadowed by the incessant whine of our so-called hero. I have read other books of a similar nature, and am a constant viewer of Intervention; this is the first time I’ve encountered this type of story and been more irritated than interested. On the one hand, Mr. Stahl is begging for gratification, and on the other hand, the gratification is beneath him, and he moves onward as a sort of user-martyr on a path to self-destruction. What he reaches at the end, what seems to ultimately “save” him, to be truthful, made me roll my eyes, disappointed.

The concept of this book was brilliant, and I absolutely loved the Prologue. I found myself genuinely liking many of the “characters” (who weren’t Mr. Stahl) and found the small side-stories interesting. Mr. Stahl has an obvious knack for setting a scene, and a large vocabulary resplendent with adjectives; the problem with this book was not at all the writing, but the story itself. That said, it is supposed to be a true story, so it is what it is; how many of us could put our lives on paper and keep people reading? I know I’m being harsh here, and it’s not that I hated the book; I simply expected more out of it. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to care about his well-being, or what would happen to him in the (abrupt) end. My apologies to Mr. Stahl, as I’m sure it is not easy to put the worst of yourself out there for everyone to see. Blame Mr. Frey, his somewhat-fictionalized drug memoir raised the bar for everyone else.

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