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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
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 14, 2010
Jack lives in a seedy part of LA, works at Donut Haven, is married to a hooker named Karen, and dreams of being a celebrity. It doesn't surprise him when Karen disappears after selling her kidney for $30,000. Expecting her to be on a prolonged bender, Jack goes looking for Karen and instead finds the police, in a park, examining a gutted body. Jack soon enters into uncomfortable relationships with a police detective named Ryan and a seductive surgeon named Bella. His life is about to become much better -- or much worse -- than he ever imagined.

High Life is noir on steroids. It has the blunt and gory mixture of sex, drugs, and violence that animates American Psycho, but it almost makes that novel resemble Winnie the Pooh by comparison. If you're put off by scatology, necrophilia, incest, and gruesome descriptions of death, you might want to give High Life a pass. On the other hand, if you can stomach the violence and the bizarre sexual appetites of the principle characters, you'll be rewarded with a masterful piece of writing, as well as an insightful examination of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the craving that certain outcasts feel for the well publicized lives of wealthy celebrities. Matthew Stokoe makes the novel's first person narrator into a likable sociopath--no small feat, and a tribute to his authorial abilities. The tightly plotted story is credible, the characters are fully realized, and the atmosphere is a rich mix of the darkness of noir and the superficial sunshine of Hollywood.

High Life is hard to put down and hard to forget. I would give it 4 1/2 stars if I could.
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on February 21, 2014
I'm giving it five stars because of the quality of the writing. Parts of the narrative are absolutely outstanding. The guy can really write, which made the story itself such a big disappointment. Even thought a lot of really, really, bad stuff happens, it's pretty much the standard LA tale of drugs, disappointment, misery and degradation. Maybe the author spent a couple of months there and regrets what they made him do. He does have some idea of the geography of the town though. Must have had a really, really, good map of the star's homes.
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on February 19, 2016
There's nothing I can say that other reviewers haven't already said. This book is dark, grimy, repulsive and disturbing to an extreme degree.

Supposedly this is being made into a film. I can't see how this story will slide past the censors. It will either have to be heavily edited or direct to video. If Stokoe himself has full control over filming and released the video on his own site, I'd buy a copy for $200 ...maybe more.
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on December 4, 2002
matthew stokoe is an amazing writer.
in cows, his first novel, it got all crazy from the very start.

in high life stokoe shows considerable restraint by slowly getting to the good stuff. by doing this he has made the intense scenes even more powerful because they aren't the focus. they just happen to be in the story.
once again, stokoe is an amazing writer. i look forward to reading more from him.
p.s. anyone comparing stokoe to bret easton ellis, or ian banks, or poppy z brite are [fools]. he blows them away completely and then goes back and rapes their skulls.
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on February 9, 2013
Brilliantly written, this is a book that will haunt your dreams and make you think twice about what really goes on behind closed doors. Gritty and poetic - the imagery Stokoe conjures up will stay with you for a very long time. The plot keeps you wanting to turn the pages even though sometimes you're afraid of what you might find. When it comes to this novel the feint of heart need not apply. I also recommend Empty Mile which is another fine piece of writing from Stokoe. A name I think we'll all be hearing a lot more of in the future.
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on October 3, 2006
Jack wants to be famous and will do ANYTHING to get there. he encounters a few difficulties along the way. his prostitute wife is murdered and he's being stalked by a cop named ryan, who has a secret. he takes jack to a secluded location to watch what initially seems to be a couple engaging in consensual sex until a chainsaw is included in the act, which then turns into a live "snuff" show. he sees this as an opportunity to frighten and control jack and keep him under his thumb. "high life" is a fun-filled sordid journey through LA's gutter, if your idea of fun is murder, necrophilia, bizarre s&m sex, torture, and drug addiction. featuring a cast belonging in an triple x rated fellini [or tarantino] film. matthew really has a flair for the grotesque, with a twisted outlook on all of the denizens of LA.

jack hooks up with bella [ who's sexual appetite is the most deranged in a book filled with deviant sex] who has connections to the entertainment industry, which jack covets and is so obsessed with being a part of. what jack is willing to do seems to have no limits, as his search for fame and the world he becomes a part of becomes stranger and stranger. he has an encounter with an individual with an unusual hobby of photographing a very specific body part. there really are no likable characters in "high life", just varying graduations of decadent and amoral players, along with our anti-hero jack [even his attempt at helping a desperate friend fail].this is pulp fiction noir at it's best. and I can't wait to see what matthew does next.
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on January 2, 2016
'High Life' is one helluva ride. It's one of those novels that seems impossibly real yet is so ... outrageous. Hollywood life with an extreme sexually violent twist. The lead characters are incredibly perverse. This book is definitely not for the faint of heart. But if you can stomach the excess there is so much to enjoy here. The author's literary style is easy to read, great characters, and at its core there is a good murder mystery that kept me guessing until the end.

Bottom line: sort of like an American Psycho set in Hollywood. Totally disgusting but really excellent.
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on April 18, 2007
After reading a number of mainstream novels I find myself searching for novels that meet the criteria for being truely disturbing. I'm talking about underground/so far outside of the mainstream that you wouldn't find this book anywhere near a bookstore & could only be bought online. After searching long and hard I came across this title as well as Matthew Stokoe's other title "Cows". Cows is equally as disgusting/twisted but I would say High Life was better written, more entertaining & moved along more like a mainstream novel but with unflinching detail. It felt like this book was an attempt to disturb the reader and then disturb the reader some more; treat them to something that most likely wasn't experienced before. Like I said before, after reading a number of mainstream novels it feels good to read something of this nature, it's like breath of fresh air.(Alright, maybe not fresh)

When I first read this, I was surprised their were actual books like this out there. There out there, you just have to look.(preferably with a magnifying glass)
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on September 2, 2008
Wow, this is an amazing story line of living vicariously through the eyes of the other side, the kind we don't talk about but love to listen too...Just imagine doing and seeing all you have ever dreamed of or having all your wicked thoughts come true in the worst way...pretty scary to say the least. It puts a whole new spin on morbid grieving and searching for your own soul, only to find out you were capable of enduring the unspeakable...The style of writing is so well written, takes you places you love to be (High Life) and places you wish didn't exist like (Low Life) reality...Must read...
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