Pain Killers revolves around the twisted psyche and horrific actions of Nazi "Race Scientist" Dr. Joseph Mengele aka The Angel of Death. Demented as Mengele may seem now, what's more fascinating -- and more disturbing -- to me, is the foundation of ideology and state that condoned his behavior -- and not just condoned -- but rewarded. A man like Mengele, after all, doesn't grab power. He's not some charismatic freak like Hitler. He's appointed. He's the logical result of the System that produced him. (Think Dick Cheney, minus the sneer and pacemaker.) Naturally, The Butcher of Auschwitz deserves to be judged for what he did. But behind the deeds are the beliefs that nurtured them -- the notion of eugenics and Aryan supremacy -- which have tendrils buried as deep in the American tradition as they were in Germany's.
The dirty little secret of The Final Solution is that Hitler was inspired by America's eugenics practices, a philosophy condoning selective elimination of 'inferior beings' through sterilization. (Which became the law in 29 states.) Where America and Germany differed was in method, not philosophy. Hitler had Henry Ford's picture over his desk. And the Rockefeller Foundation financed much of the most unspeakable research performed in Mengele's lab -- all in the name of protecting, preserving and spawning a world of blue-eyed blondes.
Much of the action takes place at San Quentin, where I spent a little while teaching writing last year. In our culture, the very name San Quentin is iconic. And it's that iconic vision of the place I had in mind when I set Mengele there. The landscape has its own gravity.
Part of the book's plot involves the public obsession with watching prison dramas and documentaries. 1 out of every 100 Americans is currently incarcerated. So people are either watching because they want to see their relatives -- or because, in this economy, there are few strata of society left to which the gutted middle class can feel superior. I'll leave the layers of latent homo-erotica implied in watching buff guys with full-body ink lifting weights on the yard to those who specialize in such matters.
At the core level, Pain Killers is a love story between two damaged individuals. As is the case for a lot of ex-addicts, early trauma victim and all-around survivors -- happiness is hard to distinguish from relief. My belief is that damage loves damage. That, one way or the other, we find partners blessed or cursed with the qualities we most need to heal in ourselves. People who have witnessed the worst -- in life, and in each other -- sometimes have the strongest bond. They've got nothing to hide, because there's nothing they haven't seen. Within us all, in other words, is a level of hurt that seeks relief by union with another, the shape of whose suffering mirrors our own.
While the novel evokes hysteria on many levels--the kind of laughter, on occasion, that stings -- the humor in no way mitigates the deadly serious subject matter. Quite the opposite. Personally, I have always believed that laughter in the face of life's horror is one of the greatest survival tools we have. As Saul Bellow once remarked, "oppressed people are always witty--because they have to be." Maybe it's a Jew thing. But it's a Black thing, too. And, as far as I can tell, an Asian and Latino one, too.
I have been lucky enough to write about a lot of intriguing and -- to me, at least -- weirdly fascinating subjects and characters. Civil War re-enacting corset aficionados in CSI, or the heroin addicted inventor of the pie fight in the novel I, Fatty (the story of Roscoe Arbuckle, optioned by Johnny Depp.) Or Oscar Levant, the manic depressive genius who took an ambulance from a mental hospital to a studio to tape his talk show in the Fifties. (It was Oscar who remarked, famously, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin".) That one is for Ben Stiller. Right now I'm working on the Chef Jeff Henderson story, "Cooked," for Will Smith, from a memoir about a crack cooker who did ten years of federal time and learned to be a chef in prison -- enabling him to enter the straight world and become the first African American executive chef in Las Vegas. At the moment I'm also writing a movie about the love affair between Ernest Hemingway (another perfectly normal fellow) and journalist Martha Gellhorn for HBO. James Gandolfini wil play Hemingway, which adds a whole other level of intensity to the project.
People always ask if it's better to work on novels, as opposed to movies, or magazine articles, or TV. I always tell them the same thing -- it's all writing. It all comes out of your head. The main difference is when you're writing a novel, as opposed to a film, there aren't nine executives leaning over your shoulder saying "We love it, but could you change the main character to a nine year old Chinese girl and set in Bosnia....?" For better or worse, books they stand or fall with the author. Beyond that, after you've worked in McDonalds at the ripe age of 38, it's all gravy. I wake up every day and I'm happy just to go to work in my own clothes.
Here's a video I did for Pain Killers: