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Authors: Matthew Stokoe

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High Life

BOOK: High Life
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The author wishes to express his gratitude to Henry Flesh for his support, and for recognizing the truth behind the horror.

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by Akashic Books

©2002, 2008 Matthew Stokoe

eISBN-13: 978-1-617-75009-0

ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-53-8

Library of Congress Control Number: 2007939757

All rights reserved

Akashic Books

PO Box 1456

New York, NY 10009

[email protected]

www.akashicbooks.com

For Richard

Let this be your howl at the world

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Title Page

 

Copyright Page

 

Introduction

 

Chapter One

 

Chapter Two

 

Chapter Three

 

Chapter Four

 

Chapter Five

 

Chapter Six

 

Chapter Seven

 

Chapter Eight

 

Chapter Nine

 

Chapter Ten

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Chapter Twenty

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

Chapter Thirty

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

Chapter Forty

 

Chapter Forty-One

 

Chapter Forty-Two

 

Chapter Forty-Three

 

Chapter Forty-Four

 

Chapter Forty-Five

 

Chapter Forty-Six

 

Chapter Forty-Seven

 

Chapter Forty-Eight

 

Chapter Forty-Nine

 

Chapter Fifty

 

Chapter Fifty-One

 

Epilogue

 

Introduction

 

Matthew Stokoe’s
High Life
was the first book to be published in the Little House on the Bowery series back in 2002. In fact, this brilliant and ferocious novel not only epitomizes the kind of work I’ve intended to support and celebrate with the imprint; it is exactly the kind of book that I suspect most people knowing my own interests and published work would expect to appear in a project operating under my editorial standards. In truth,
High Life
is the only Little House on the Bowery book to predate my taking over the reins of the series. Perhaps for that reason, and despite the novel’s obvious connections to the imprint’s tastes and mission statement,
High Life
has always been the kind of black sheep of the series by default—a situation now rectified by this official relaunching of the book accompanied by all the bells and whistles that Akashic Books and Little House on the Bowery can manage.

Still, a more important reason for trying to draw people’s attention to the book once again is that, for reasons having possibly to do with the ever-expanding conservatism with which the arbiters of contemporary literary tastes delegate their gold stars, or possibly due to the fact that at the time Stokoe’s novel was originally released there was not yet the kind of widespread critical and public support for independent publishing that there is today,
High Life’s
life has been an unjustly low-key one for the past six years. This is especially strange when you consider that Stokoe’s first novel, the enormously disturbing and transcendently clever
Cows
(1999), a literally eviscerating portrait of life among the British lower classes, is revered internationally as one of the most daring English-language novels of the past few decades.

High Life
, in which Stokoe lends even more of his genius to what would seem to be a far more immediate and topical subject—the darkest of the dark sides of Hollywood’s TV and movie business—is almost certainly the more horrifying and yet completely entertaining of the two novels. Its relative obscurity flies in the face of what I am positive is its future status as one of the most unstinting, imaginative, brutal, and original contemporary novels ever written about the punishments that come with the prioritization of fame. If anything, the recent slavering, apocalyptic media coverage that added its own special tortures to the collapsing lives of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and gleefully sexed up the lonesome death of Heath Ledger has legitimized what only a few years ago seemed like severe imaginative leaps by Stokoe. The fact that
High Life
isn’t regularly mentioned in the same breath with classic, transgressive social satires like
American Psycho
and
Fight Club
is a mystery and an injustice that I sincerely hope the book’s rebirth, in combination with new attention from unsuspecting readers and critics, will quickly revise into a weird and ugly memory.

Dennis Cooper
Los Angeles
March 2008

Chapter One

 

A hot rain blew in from the sea. It hit Ocean Avenue in sticky washes of reflected neon that took the colored light from the hotels and stores and ran it into the gutters with the trash. In Palisades Park a fat tramp stood staring down at something by his feet. The way he held his head made him look like a hanged man. He swayed slightly and I imagined a rope stretching from his neck to the sky. I pulled over, wondering if he’d found what I was looking for.

It was hard to see clearly, the sodium spill from the streetlights didn’t make it very far across the corridor of parkland, and the outline of the tramp’s bulk was broken by the drifting shadows of hibiscus bushes. I squinted, wiped rain from my eyes, and saw him stamp his foot. A shower of golden drops erupted from the ground. I relaxed—the moron was standing in a puddle, making his reflection explode. Each time the surface settled he did it again, like he didn’t want to see what was there. Maybe it was some symbolic destruction of self. Maybe he thought it looked pretty. To me it was just sad. Not because his behavior was particularly aberrant, but because it was too easy to picture myself taking that final small step out of the mainstream and into a world where puddles held secrets that could make you stand still in the rain.

I looked beyond the tramp, deeper into darkness, and saw bodies. But they were all alive, or what passed for alive on this nighttime strip of California. They lay under the shelter of trees or beneath benches, wrapped in cardboard and plastic sheeting, searching for a blank hour of rest. The longer I looked, the more of them I saw—patches of shadow dissolving into cursing human forms that fought their own bones in an effort to find some impossible position of ease. Occasionally a cigarette glowed orange against the glass of a wine bottle.

These homeless people, these drunkards and junkies, these fucked-out hookers and runaway teenagers, these excons and cons in waiting—all of them patinated with the violence of their despair—lived out entire lives on this dog-shitted margin of grass. Lived and drank and fixed and fucked here, and wondered what they might have been if things had been different.

Yeah, fuck.

A small, final step.

It doesn’t take much.

I pulled away from the curb, slow-wheeling south. Wipers on interval, curtains of rain sucking up sound. The car felt safe, a padded steel cage insulating me from the rest of the city.

On my right, thirty feet below the edge of the park, Santa Monica pier stuck into the ocean like a thorn. Its burger stands were closed and the carousel was dead, but lights still burnt along its length, throwing an unpleasant nimbus of useless wattage into the wet night air.

No sign of her.

I U-turned and cut right into Santa Monica Boulevard. Stupid to expect she’d be down here on a night like this anyway.

It was late enough for the traffic to be light, sometime around three
A.M.
I smoked and drove one-handed through the long spaces between drifting red taillights. On either side of me buildings advertised themselves—pie houses, motels, office blocks, low-level thirties deco to millennium mirror glass. Packed close at the beach, they relaxed and stretched out somewhere past Lincoln, losing height as real estate prices fell.

Santa Monica. SaMo. User-friendly L.A. Shining malls, chichi cafes, Third Street Promenade with its ivy dinosaurs and high-concept restaurants. All of it a plan for the way everyone with money wanted everywhere to be.

My eyes burned. Last night had been the same—trawling the streets, totally fucked but unable to sleep, cursing Karen and cursing myself and cursing our whole fucking life together. She’d disappeared plenty of times before, but I had a feeling about this one.

Eight days and counting. I didn’t know what it meant.

But I had a feeling …

Santa Monica blurred into West L.A.—no markers, no separate identity. Too late for the drag, business there was so desperately urgent it burnt itself out around two
A.M.
But there was a chance she’d try for a drunk outside one of the clubs on the strip.

Hollywood here I come.

The dash lights glowed comfortable and orange. I wanted to believe what they said, that everything was running smooth and correct. I wanted to, but I didn’t. She’d been gone too long.

I concentrated on driving and tried not to think.

The rain stopped.

Century City looked as sterile at night as it did by day—office towers and a mall and nothing human. Twenty stories up, behind the spotless glass, massive amounts of money brooded, waiting for the employees of Warner and Fox and Sony to pick up where they left off the day before and continue channeling it into foot-age of other people’s lives. This was where the dreams of the planet’s population were given life—not in the screenwriter’s mind, not in the studios of Burbank or the Amblin offices over in Universal City Plaza, but in the machinery that made the green-light money available.

Dreams. The Dream Factory. Most people thought its product was a form of entertainment, maybe a pointer to fashion or lifestyle. Most people went home from the movies and said, “Wow, that was great. Man, that guy is so cool, that chick is so sexy, that house was so big, did you see that fucking car? But, shit, it’s only a film … That ain’t life.”

But I knew better. I knew that it was, and that films were windows into reality, not distortions of it—views of the only worthwhile way to live. Everything else was a river of shit.

Movie stars gazed down from their billboards, ten times as big as anyone else, ten times as real—the only people who counted for anything. If there was a god, these were the children he loved the most.

I crossed into Beverly Hills. The streets were wide and quiet and lacquered with the rain’s aftermath. Tall palms doubled themselves in wet reflections along the perfect edges of perfect roads, and in the gardens of mansions on the flats soft lighting turned foliage gentle and friendly. No shit here, these people lived in a film.

A stretch greased past on the inside, long and polished, one of its black glass windows down. Inside a flawless dark-haired man spoke on a mobile, two implant-blondes pressed close. Billboard people—the colors of their clothes and bodies more intense than mine, their forms more sharply delineated in the golden cabin-light. Unlike the white-trash-slope-nigger-spic masses that made up the greater part of L.A., they meant something to people other than themselves.

Money is part of the architecture of the city and mostly you learn to coexist, blinkered in self-defense to the reality of its beauty. But there are times when it won’t be ignored, when it rears up and jams itself in your face and makes sure you haven’t forgotten that it’s all still there—a passport, a reward, a validation that some people, certain people, can just reach out and pick up.

And as I watched the limo, as I watched its taillights slide deep into the night ahead, full of mystery and purpose, all I wanted in the world was to be inside it with those people, gliding to whatever marble-lined, seafront palace they were headed for. To be their equal, to own a similar or greater amount of possessions.

To live life as it should be lived.

But I was a thousand light-years away.

So …

Cut north on Fairfax, right at Sunset, and head on into the strip.

They say it was better in the seventies, but I was five years old and somewhere else.

Flashy fronting, famous names in light bulbs—The Roxy, The Viper Room, Whiskey a Go Go. A place where Johnny Depp and Dan Ackroyd and plenty of others made a hobby of playing host to a tight community of friends. A place for River Phoenix to die and for plaid-jacketed, out-of-state conventioneers to get ripped and score some pussy. Karen had milked it for plenty in her time. Whoring in front of tourist attractions worked, the patrons had money to spend and an excuse for being away from home.

Outside entrances to clubs, dissolute knots of temporary Californians tried to argue their way past doormen for a last drink, or stood around thinking of home and waiting for cabs. The earlier rain had killed whatever action there might have been at the ass end of this midweek night and the street was pretty much deserted. If sex was selling at all, it was doing agency business—phone calls and taxi rides to hotel rooms and private houses.

I carried on, took Fairfax north and the most famous street in the world east—Hollywood Boulevard.

When the stars were still black and white it must have been clean and relaxed and bursting with its own desirability. Coleman and Flynn and Crawford and all the others had made America a hit with the world, and the crowds clamoring outside the Chinese Theater to see them participated in this success by proxy. Back then the country was a place where anything that wasn’t American wasn’t good enough, and where individual achievement reflected on the entire population.

Predawn in the last quarter of the nineties, the boulevard was a flashing, anxiety-ridden nightmare. The restaurants that once captured the nation’s imagination as backdrops for celebrity trysts had long ago made way for T-shirt stores and sunglasses emporiums. The handprints had spit in them and the brass stars were spotted with gum. And if success was ever rash enough to take a trip down from the hills, the industry made sure it was too well-armored to ever share itself around.

But it was still Hollywood Boulevard. Still the draw card, the iceberg tip of the Californian legend that shone out to small towns across the world, ruining whatever complacency they had won from the past with the notion that there was, without doubt, somewhere more exciting to live.

Sometimes Karen came here to score or to hang out. Or to look for rich out-of-towners to sugar daddify for a couple of days. But it was too late and too dangerous now. I should have started searching hours ago, but the ocean had kept me—I’d had a feeling she’d turn up in one of the picnic huts on Venice Beach, spliffing and drinking with whoever she could find to keep her company. Now I felt stupid for wasting my time.

The drag wasn’t far from the boulevard, I could have checked it on the off chance, but I’d had enough. Karen would have to haul her ass home from wherever it was herself.

The drive back to Santa Monica was blank. My eyes felt charred and the cigarettes had eaten into my throat. I bought a cold coke from a machine outside a motel and chugged it until my eyes watered. Coke and damp night air, and the slowed pulse of the city around me. For that moment, for that snapshot, micron-thin slice of time, I was free of the past, free even of the present—just the sweet caustic singe in my mouth and the loose quietness of being up and alone when most people were asleep.

Five minutes later, back on the road, the sugar and caffeine kicked in and perked me up a little. But there was nothing to look at, so I ran Calvin Klein perfume commercials in my head.

Around Franklin I started taking notice of things again. Santa Monica Boulevard was clear down its last long sweep to the ocean and I was glad not to have the hassle of dealing with other drivers.

My back ached, I pressed it into the seat. The upholstery felt good against my shoulders. The wheel felt good in my hands. Honda Prelude, five years old, low mileage, not a scratch. Not a Porsche, but I wasn’t complaining. I was lucky to have a car at all.

A month back, after my uninsured Ford had been stolen, my only chance of getting back into the personal transport loop had been the bus, double shifts, and the hope I’d get enough cash together before the hours or some crazy on the backseat killed me. Karen could have kicked in, but I didn’t ask her. By then we were way past the stage where she contributed to community property—everything she got hooking went to drugs and partying. Besides, a car didn’t mean much to her, she didn’t have a license.

Turned out, though, I’d written her off too soon. Turned out she felt the need to indulge in a single, inexplicable act of generosity.

Ocean Avenue, an hour before dawn. Inland a runtish light was starting to seep into the sky, outlining a few of the clouds that had brought last night’s rain. Too late for sleep now. I figured, check the park again and maybe the beach below it, then back to Venice for a shower and something chemical before go-time at Donut Haven.

But it didn’t work out like that.

As I was passing the camera obscura I heard a siren. A couple of seconds later, a paramedic vehicle pumped by on the inside in a sudden compression of light and sound. It hung level for a few yards then cut into my lane and pulled ahead.

There was no reason for this ambulance to mean anything more to me than the hundreds of others I’d seen since I arrived in the city, but after it gained a quarter mile and I saw where it was headed, I had a bad feeling I wasn’t going to be able to dismiss it as part of someone else’s horror.

Activity on the edge of the park, about opposite where San Vicente cuts off inland. A couple of police cars were already there, turning the street into a movie set with their roof lights. Dark shapes of people moved around, silhouetted against the blue-and-red glare. The foliage back from the street rippled under the sweeping colors like there was a high wind blowing through it.

The paramedics slowed, curved across the oncoming lanes, parked next to the cops, and added their lights to the rest.

I had an urge to turn around, to head home and escape knowing what it was that had brought this group of emergency vehicles together on a parkland bluff at the western edge of a country of 350 million people. But I didn’t. I had to know if they’d found what I’d been looking for all night.

BOOK: High Life
5.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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