When the New York Times reported in February that Aribert Heim, a Nazi war criminal know as Dr. Death, lived in Egypt until his death in 1992, there seemed to be something prescient about Jerry Stahl's latest novel, Pain Killers.
Literary bad boy Jay McInerney wrote movingly about 9/11 in The Good Life, so it seemed possible that Stahl could have something to say about hunting down Josef Mengele, presumed to have died in 1979.
For readers familiar with Stahl's ability to find humor in debauchery — his memoir, Permanent Midnight, documented his battles with narcotics — Pain Killers rewards fans from its opening description of photos of Clarence Thomas, the Pope, Jerry Falwell and L. Ron Hubbard in compromising positions.
Pain Killers brings back Manny Rupert, the addict and detective hero of Plainclothes Naked. After he's assaulted by a septuagenarian with a walker in "a perverted and violent mode of job recruitment," Manny accepts the task of finding out whether a San Quentin prisoner claiming to be Josef Mengele is who he says he is.
The plot becomes a convoluted mess as organizations connected to the government, the entertainment industry, pharmaceutical companies and the Simon Wiesenthal Center all have something to gain or lose in discovering the truth.
But Stahl's fans don't read him for plot. They read a book like this to see what fascinating, disgusting low Manny will hit next as he tries to get high or pass a drug test. As a bonus, readers can laugh inappropriately when maybe-Mengele declares that if there was a movie about his life, it would be Patch Adams, and they can learn details about "Bible sluts" who specialize in the evangelical crowd while remaining "technical virgins."
Like the drugs Manny craves, Pain Killers is tasteless, but for those willing to risk it, the book offers some disorienting fun.
Vikas Turakhia teaches high school in Ohio.