Byline: Sabrina Qutb
LOS ANGELES — Leaning over his bowl of Canter’s chicken-noodle, novelist Jerry Stahl explained the mysterious world of plushy-love to his good friend Johnny Depp. “Dick Chaney, for instance, is a plushy. Many people don’t know this. Nickname: the chipmunk.”
“So that’s where he always goes,” Depp says with a nod, setting down his Reuben under the thick yellow light of the old 24-hour deli on Fairfax.
“Yes,” Stahl continues. “When everybody thinks he’s in a bunker in Nebraska, he’s actually just out hitting a plushy club in Du Pont Circle.”
This exchange offers a bit of insight into the imagination of a man whose new book, “Plainclothes Naked” (William Morrow), lies at the dubious intersection of pulp fiction and crackhouse confessional. “I write stuff that to me is just life, and people think it’s over the top,” Stahl explains. “But over the top is such a relative term.”
Before he can say more, an elderly gentleman approaches the table. From out of the blue, the old guy starts to beam. “Hey, Johnny. Listen, I want to tell you a joke.” And there, as Stahl sits with Depp listening to a fellow who sounds as if he’s just stepped off a stage in the Catskills, it’s clear that he has a point. Not that this moment could do much to explain a novel about two crackheads on the trail of a nurse who has just swiped their photo of George W. hamming it up with his drawers down.
“It’s a love story, really,” Stahl insists in all seriousness. “I have this theory that love is damage craving similar damage. Two people who can’t trust or be touched transcending the little box of pain and weirdness.”
Earlier that day, Depp had given Stahl a small portrait of the author — one that captured the Stahl’s trademark focused stare and furrowed brow. Now, during lunch, Depp explains the gift. “When we met, I was left with a strong impression. I had a very small photograph, and so I went with my impression — the residue, as it were,” he smiles. “I was really just dealing with the residue of Jerry. The sauna didn’t work, the high-colonic didn’t work, so I painted him.”
Stahl is lucky to have Depp — especially in light of the fact that ever since his dark memoir about drug addiction, “Permanent Midnight,” was made into a film starring Ben Stiller, he’s found that people are often not sure how to deal with him. “I think some people do resent the fact that being a dope fiend and ruining the life of anyone who ever cared about me turned out to be a great career move,” he explains.
“No, seriously, I was really lucky. You know, when I was 38, I was working at McDonald’s. After that, it’s all gravy.”
Laughing at the pain is a trope that surfaces often in “Plainclothes Naked.” “You’re in pain — what are you gonna do?” Stahl shrugs. “You laugh through your anguish because, otherwise, it kills you.”
And to the aspiring novelist in all of us, he offers the following advice: “Destroy your life. Run it off the rails, burn yourself to the ground, and then write. What it does is give you compassion. You don’t judge anybody anymore. That’s worth trading your liver for, I think.”