Plainclothes Naked
by Jerry Stahl
(William Morrow & Co) $25

I read crime novels for the same reason that I glance at car accidents: because I can't help myself. Sure, I get a thrill when things go terribly wrong, but that doesn't make me a ghoul. I just like to read about bad people doing really bad things. At least, I thought I did until stumbling through the wreckage that is Jerry Stahl's novel Plainclothes Naked.

The story goes like this: Two crack addicts steal a photo of President George W. Bush's balls (tattooed with a happy face). But before they can attempt to blackmail the president, Tina--a nurse in the retirement home where they have hidden the photo--absconds with the evidence and thus emboldened, offs her husband. Enter homicide detective Manny Rupert, an ex-junkie who is quickly sucked into the fetching murderess' schemes and scams.

There's plenty in this furiously paced farce to churn even the strongest stomach. In one scene, a blackmailer holds his aged mother out a window by her ankles while complaining about the unfettered view of "mom-twat." Another scene has a post-op getting her throat slit while eating a Jenny Craig bar and jacking off with a dildo-cam.

Though Stahl's arch-noir style is undeniably crafty (a botched breast job is described as "mismatched Santa hats"), this pitch-black comedy fails to induce even a giggle, never mind catharsis. And this has less to do with the violence than the fact that every character in the fucking novel talks just like Stahl. If you've read Stahl's notorious junkie memoir Permanent Midnight, you'll recognize the ventriloquist speaking for these miserable meat puppets.

This isn't a book about bad people doing bad things. It's another opportunity to wiggle your fingers in Stahl's still-open wound. And trust me, there are things far uglier than shits and giggles festering inside his sordid soul.