Top positive review
7 people found this helpful
Starts slow, picks up.
on November 15, 2005
Matthew Stokoe, High Life (Akashic, 2002)
Matthew Stokoe's first novel, Cows, is the kind of sucker punch that actually grabs hold, tears the skin of your belly wide, and hollows out your abdominal cavity, all for the sake of being bored and wanting a snack. How do you follow up something like Cows? You're basically inviting yourself over the cliff of the sophomore curse.
High Life does, in fact, suffer from said sophomore curse, albeit briefly (and in the ugliest of manners). For a few pages, Stokoe seems to have lost all the sense of pacing that made Cows a novel that commanded you to read it in one sitting. Unfortunately, for "a few" here, you can read "the first half of the novel." It starts out slow-- glacially slow. Even though in the opening pages you're treated to a disembowelled corpse, a necrophiliac cop, and more drugs than you can shake a stick at, you're likely to have a relatively rough time getting through the first hundred or so pages.
Once the novel picks up, though, the old Stokoe comes back, and with a vengeance. There are fetishes in this book I'm relatively sure don't even have names yet. Stokoe's rather distressing knowledge of the Hollywood drug trade gets mapped over into a discussion of the trade in anonymous black-market organs, we revisit some of the scarier scenes in Cows from a Hollywood perspective, and, if it's possible, things get even more disgusting than they did in Cows. The first half of the novel crawls; the second flies. Like Stokoe's first book, the second half of this one will keep you up late wondering how this maniac thinks this stuff up.
High Life is, at its heart, a murder mystery. Its protagonist, Jack, is a thoroughly shallow narcissist whose sole ambition in life is to become an actor, for he believes that actors are archetypes of humanity, perfect beings who will, in a way, never die. As the book opens, Karen, his prostitute wife, is found dead and mutilated in a park not far from their place. Jack is immediately suspected of the murder by Ryan, an aging, nitro-popping cop who's got, shall we say, some very serious issues. Jack decides that with this incompetent moron on the case, he'd probably be better off solving the murder himself, and, in his own drugs-and booze-fueled way, he sets about doing so, taking a quick detour into prostitution himself in the process.
It's somewhat easier to recommend High Life than it was Cows (about which I said "This book is not for everyone. In fact, it may not be for anyone." despite it making my Top Reads of 2004 list), if only because the unsuspecting, innocent reader is likely to be intrigued by the murder long before Stokoe hits you with both gore-drenched, perverse barrels. If you're willing to put up with a somewhat glacial pace at the beginning and are a fan of, shall we say, the more extreme murder mystery, High Life may well be right up your alley. (As with Cows, though, it helps-- a lot-- to have a very strong stomach.) Those of you already inured to the antics of more extreme artists, however, would be better advised to go looking for Stokoe's harder-to-find, but punchier, first effort. *** ½