High Life by Matthew Stokoe

Among the many things my wife and I disagree about, one big point of philosophical contention is the relative merits of trashy talk shows. After the usual battle for the remote, we watch as Ricki valiantly tries to talk slutty-dressing moms into their suburban-hausfrau makeovers or Maury counsels deadbeat boyfriends while they wait for the results of the paternity test, while I nurse my rapped knuckles and wait for the hour that stretches to come to its merciful conclusion. My wife maintains that she loves watching the parade of rednecks and mutants marching toward the inevitable Springer-induced smackdown because it puts any problems she may have into their proper perspective. I, on the other hand, find these shows difficult to watch because the last thing I need is one more reason to mourn for my species.

In any case, there is one point regarding the talk shows (and their inbred cousins of the Real World, ElimiDATE, and Survivor ilk) on which we are in complete agreement: we are both constantly amazed that, as “reality programming” enters its third decade of full flower, there are people who eagerly volunteer to go on national television and air their dirty laundry for the world at large. Even after countless fistfights, public humiliation, the dissolution of marriages, endless litigation, and a couple of well-publicized deaths, there is still no shortage of people willing to forego security, dignity, and the order of their lives for the chance to appear on television, even at its least glamorous. It’s the classic Mephistophelian bargain. After half a century of manufacturing desire, TV at last offers pieces of its glittering self to the less-than-beautiful people — if they’re willing to pay the price.

Matthew Stokoe’s brutal novel High Life explores the lengths one man will go to for a shot at stardom, and to say those lengths are extreme would be an understatement. From Raymond Chandler to Nathanael West to James Ellroy, the “dark underbelly of L.A.” novel has always been an exercise in one-upmanship, to see who can create the starkest contrast between the surface of Hollywood glitz and the sheer depravity that lies beneath it. Stokoe takes the baton and runs with a glee that borders on the psychotic — this is not a book for the squeamish.

Stokoe’s protagonist is Jack, a fully confirmed acolyte of the Hollywood Dream whose holy writ are the print and video tabloids. Jack could not begin to tell you about the history of cinema, the auteur theory, or mise-en-scene, but ask him how much Tom Cruise pulled down for his last picture or what Bruce Willis paid for a house and he’s your boy. Celebrities, Jack maintains with obsessive certainty, are the only people who matter, whose lives are envied but untouched by the rest of the world, proof against need and unpleasantness and circumstance. Jack came to L.A. in search of the elusive golden doorway to that world, but as the novel begins all he has is a job in a donut shop, a telehosting class that’s going nowhere, and a hooker wife named Karen who bought him a Honda Prelude after selling a kidney to one of her tricks and then disappeared. After eight days of searching, Jack finds her body, sliced open and disemboweled and dumped in a drainage ditch, and what started out as rock bottom begins to go even further downhill.

Rather than inspire grief, Karen’s death catalyzes a metamorphosis in Jack. Never exactly a sympathetic soul to begin with — and it is to Stokoe’s credit that Jack has virtually no likeable qualities and still captures our attention — Jack finds a new sense of liberation in embracing the sordid world of pushers and hustlers that populate the seedy side of Hollywood. Though ostensibly he is searching for Karen’s killer, suspecting a link between her murder and whomever bought her kidney, Jack’s detetcive work is lackadaisical at best, taking a back seat to new thrills like peddling his own ass on the street and inflicting cruelties on the homeless with the detached amusement of the newly minted sociopath. Rex, a hustler friend of Karen’s, gets Jack a gig with an escort service, and while playing the devoted boyfriend of an actor at a party thrown by a libertine TV producer, Jack runs into Bella, a wealthy thirtysomething of questionable morals who takes a raptor’s interest in Our Hero and offers to make his show-biz dreams come true. Soon Jack finds himself on a fast track to minor stardom as the cohost on his favorite video-tabloid gossip show — new clothes, new car, new house, and most importantly, a new life as one of the people who matter.

Naturally in all this buttermilk there has to be a fly or two. One is an LAPD cop named Ryan, who was one of Karen’s johns and suspects Jack of her murder, but who also seems to have an interest in the deepening corruption of Jack’s already-tarnished soul. The other fly is Bella, whose psyche is a full portfolio of moral ambiguities and sexual perversions. Caught between the two of them and his own blossoming dark side, Jack’s odyssey reads like a tour of Hell conducted by de Sade: oral sex, anal sex, multiple sex, incest, medical play, genital burns, water sports, coprophagy, sex with tools, mutilation, sex with external organs, sex with internal organs, erotic asphyxiation, snuff photos, snuff films, live snuff, simulated necrophilia, actual necrophilia. Stokoe pulls no punches, describing every act in painfully exacting detail, faithfully recording every acid-etched notch on his protagonist’s soul, while maintaining an even pace and tone that informs us that none of this is any more than business as usual in the dark corners of La-La Land. This is L.A. noir at its noirest.

Over the top? You betcha, and there are times in which Stokoe seems to be going for the pure gratuitous shock — one scene with a 14-year-old girl and a jackhammer springs to mind — but the novel never strays far from its central purpose, to force the reader to consider the price he or she might pay for the ultimate prize. As we watch the various threads of Jack’s life come together in a truly devastating series of events that raise the stakes ever higher, the question of how much hell any of us would endure for the promise of heaven is as poignant here as it is in anything by Dante.

High Life isn’t for everyone, not by a long shot, but after reading it that Jerry Springer stuff doesn’t seem that bad.