Only in Hollywood, kids, only in Hollywood would a late-20th-century literary celebrity more famous for his former heroin addiction than for his scripts identify so eagerly with the miseries of an early-20th-century movie celebrity more famous for a rape and murder he didn’t commit than for his innovations in comedy filmmaking. Well, here’s an arsenic-laced taste of Tinseltown: In his furious yet forgiving autobiographically shaped novel I, Fatty, L.A. noir hipster Jerry Stahl, author of the 1995 bowels-of-H’wood junky-lit confessional ”Permanent Midnight,” assumes the identity of corpulent silent-era superstar Roscoe ”Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933) with all the tumultuous relief of a drunk stumbling upon salvation at an AA meeting on Sunset and Vine. And in the way that creative magic sometimes happens even when the subject is ruin, the mind meld does both men a weird world of good.
Arbuckle’s story is not, to be sure, unknown. The legendary funnyman matches Chaplin and Keaton in industry importance and public adulation. A fat, unloved, dirt-poor boy from Kansas, Arbuckle — always known as Roscoe to his friends — came west by way of vaudeville (surviving the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to do so). He worked with Mack Sennett, invented pie fights, gave Chaplin his first pair of Little Tramp pants, and was the first star to be paid a million bucks a year.
Arbuckle also drank dangerously, lived decadently, and battled an addiction to heroin. And partying in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a San Francisco hotel room in 1921, he was accused of the rape and murder of a young actress named Virginia Rappe during a showbiz-sour orgy. Although acquitted after three trials (Rappe’s death was most likely the result of a botched abortion), Arbuckle’s reputation never recovered: He was the victim of the first media-driven Hollywood scandal, a sacrificial pioneer in the field of good versus bad celebrities, as decided by a public unhampered by truth.
”My attorney told me I was the symbol of everything perceived as evil or depraved in Hollywood itself,” Stahl writes, with the kind of hardened hindsight that comes to those who know how The Business works in the age of O.J. Simpson. ”Those screaming headlines in the papers weren’t just savaging Fatty Arbuckle — they were savaging the movies. Show business was being denied bail.” ”I, Fatty” is strewn with tough little boluses of rue and Freudian self-analysis (”Inside every fat man is a really fat one who’s stuck”). But there is also something protective and affectionate in Stahl’s call-me-blubber-thighed rant, lament, and eulogy.
Lashing out at the terrible father who didn’t love him or confessing his shyness with women, Stahl-as-Arbuckle gets as close to emotionally approachable as we’re likely to read from the smack-in-the-face author of the novels ”Perv” and ”Plainclothes Naked.” Arbuckle, in turn, exhibits more virility than old photos of the real man in prissy-boy costumes suggest. And thus is Hollywood rewarded with a kind of hooray, too, if only as a jungle haven for a man as complicated yet creative as Arbuckle