William Morrow: 408 pp., $24.99
It's rarely wise to compare someone to a legend. Inevitably, somebody is going to question the math. Yet as you read the first 200 pages of "Pain Killers," Jerry Stahl's second novel to follow the adventures of Manny Rupert -- a private eye with a drug problem -- it's difficult not to conjure up the work of the late Gregory Mcdonald and his creation Irwin "Fletch" Fletcher. That Rupert survives by his wits and humor is what first reminds one of Mcdonald's work, and Stahl's comic handling of brutal territory will remind readers fondly of the late master, though Rupert is certainly far more twisted than Fletch ever was.
Hired by a mysterious -- and especially violent and notably perverse -- Jewish millionaire named Harry Zell, Rupert is tasked with finding out whether a 97-year-old San Quentin prisoner is actually the Nazi "Angel of Death," Dr. Josef Mengele. The appearance of a notorious (and notoriously dead) Nazi is an intentionally absurd conceit that Stahl initially plays for straight black humor, with notable early success.
To watch Rupert bumble into San Quentin as an undercover drug counselor and then lead a prisoner recovery group (whose members include the presumed Mengele) while in the midst of a fairly severe opiate experience is vintage Stahl. That the session lasts for several glorious pages only heightens the experience the reader has that being an addict is one dreadful existence, but being an addict pretending to be clean and sober while leading a rehab session with a man who may or may not be Mengele, well, that's not something anyone is chemically prepared to handle. As Rupert discovers that the prison may be harboring Mengele and not just unknowingly housing him, and that no one, naturally, is to be trusted, it becomes apparent that Rupert is in way above his pay grade.
Rare is the author who can find the grist for humor in the workings of Mengele and the Nazis, never mind the laugh factory of San Quentin, yet Stahl does just that. That's not to say it's pleasant humor that will appeal to all, or even most, but if you happen to have a deeply twisted sense of what's funny, Stahl will tickle.
For instance, not many will find the humor in learning that Rupert's ex-wife Tina killed her previous husband by mixing Drano and broken glass into his breakfast cereal; nor will they likely find the humor in Rupert discovering her at San Quentin as well, in the midst of a conjugal visit with a top dog in the Aryan Brotherhood. Nor that said top dog happens to be named Bernstein, making him that rare Aryan Brotherhood member who might have a family kugel recipe. And fewer still may find it funny listening to a pimp-cum-reverend-cum-Christian porn magnate, a man missing half his face after a botched suicide and a perpetually stoned-sounding white Rastafarian debate medical ethics with Mengele and the mystified Rupert. But those who do . . . will.
However, as Rupert begins to unwind the truth behind the appearance of Mengele, "Pain Killers" starts to lose coherence, and with it, the comedy becomes a pastiche akin to that of another legend: Hunter S. Thompson. Some might call this Stahl's gonzo turn, but in the space of a novel that is, in essence, a mystery of identity that also questions the morality of science, this direction feels like a misstep. Where the first 200 pages are tightly plotted, morbidly funny and take the reader on a bizarre trajectory -- Mengele appears to be the real deal, and his appearance in San Quentin seems to be orchestrated by the mysterious Zell, who, Rupert learns, produces many of the popular prison documentaries that dot cable television -- the next 200 are a haphazard series of scenes where the hammer of coincidence hits hard. And the scenes aren't so much gonzo as they are jarringly confusing and repetitive, particularly the Mengele conversations, which soon strain, becoming little more than a history lesson most already know.
No one reading Stahl's crime fiction does so thinking they're getting a Richard Price novel, but Stahl doesn't even adhere to the simple -- if skewed -- sense of reality and space established previously in this work. As such, the second half careens through bedlam, with bizarre happenstance and often confounding plot decisions accounting for drama. It would spoil the book to recount most of these issues, but suffice it to say that the kidnapping of a conveniently placed Hasidic rabbi so that Rupert can "escape" from San Quentin when he isn't even being held against his will had this reader turning pages to see whether something had been missed. Other scenes, including a botched surgery that Mengele attempts to perform on Rupert that leads to an actual escape, simply do not make any logistical sense and border dangerously close to Keystone Kops territory but in a far more bloody fashion.
As "Pain Killers" spirals to a close, these issues compound until it becomes clear that this comic crime novel is simply too long for its own good. "Such was the magic of chaos," Stahl writes late in the novel while discussing Mengele's ability to disappear after World War II. "You could hide in the middle of it. Walk through like you belonged and keep on going." It's a fitting coda to this novel as well, which, though rediscovering its footing in the last two vibrant and delirious chapters, never quite recovers from the middle.
Goldberg's books include "Living Dead Girl," "Fake Liar Cheat" and "Simplify."