Empty Mile by Matthew Stokoe—review

Empty Mile Matthew StokoeThe true genius of James M. Cain was conservation. Cain was able to produce more dread, paranoia, and fear within the confines of 120 pages than most novelists can produce in 300. It was a distinct skill which I wish more modern novelists would embrace when they sit down at the computer and slowly chisel away at their massive 500 page tomes.

I understand the market (or maybe it’s the editors and publishers who demand it?) vehemently demands a higher word count than most novels truly need to justify spending 15-to- 25 dollars on a trade paperback or hardback. But come on, think back on the last 400 plus page novel you cracked open and thought to yourself:

“Yeah, they could’ve shaved 150 pages off of that no problemo…”

Case and point, Empty Mile by Matthew Stokoe

Empty Mile is the story of Johnny Richardson. Johnny grew up in the idyllic medium sized California city of Oakridge with his father and little brother, Stan. Johnny’s life is you’re typical suburban existence, until Stan nearly dies from drowning when Johnny is suppose to be watching him, but he instead slips off with his sociopathic best friend’s  girlfriend, Marla, to have sex. The accident causes permanent brain damage in Stan and emotionally scars Johnny to the point where he begins to violently act out. His behavior becomes so erratic that he feels the only way he can break himself of his self destructive behavior is by leaving Oakridge and living abroad.

Eight years pass and Johnny finally returns home to an Oakridge that is distinctly darker when he left. Stan has grown into an eccentric man child, his ex-girlfriend Marla—an already emotionally damaged woman when they first met—has become lost in a world of part time prostitution and self loathing, and his former best friend Gareth forcibly pimps Marla through blackmail. The only thing that hasn’t seemed to change is Johnny’s distant real estate salesman father.

It doesn’t take Johnny very long to jump back right into the life he so readily abandoned eight years previously, even going so far as to opening a plant grooming business with Stan and  start dating Marla again.

Marla has become even more desperate and broken and pines for Johnny and the life they might have had together if he hadn’t left. Johnny feels the most guilt over their relationship and attempts to quickly repair it. However their first attempt at intimacy happens at the same spot at the lake where Stan drowned and happens because a local city councilman pays them to have sex while he watches. The entire act ends up being filmed by Gareth in order to blackmail the councilman, and when Gareth mails the DVD to the councilman, his depressed wife views the recording and commits suicide. The councilman’s brother-in-law, the ruthless Jeremy Tripp learns of the recording and blames Johnny and Marla for his sister’s death and sets out to destroy the two of them.

Empty Mile marks Stokoe’s first foray into strictly Noir territory after penning two of the best examples of so-called “transgressive” fiction—Cows and the infamous High Life—and it has all the makings of a superior Noir: Sex, violence, greed, betrayal, the problem is that none of these elements manage to coalesce or even become remotely believable. The character of Johnny Richardson is, for a lack of a better term, a dead fish. He’s so detached that through out most of the book you find it hard to believe he inspired so much heartache from Marla, or hero worship and faith from his little brother. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind reading unlikable characters, in fact I prefer it, but Johnny isn’t likable or unlikable, he’s simply there moving from one scene to the next without any real emotional involvement.

What hinders Empty Mile the most, though, is how overburdened it is in minute details. Stokoe simply tells the reader too much and manages to spend most of the novel telegraphing plot points, so when a revelation which is meant to shock come to light, the reader is already expecting it.

I still consider Stokoe to be one of most powerful and evocative novelists currently writing, but with Empty Mile, I wish he had taken a page from James M. Cain’s book and carved a solid 200 pages off the top.

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Spinetingler Staff

Spinetingler's Fiction Editor is a former newspaper reporter and author of five crime novels from Down and Out Books. His short fiction has been published on the web at BEAT TO A PULP, A TWIST OF NOIR and THE BIG ADIOS.

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About Spinetingler Staff

Spinetingler's Fiction Editor is a former newspaper reporter and author of five crime novels from Down and Out Books. His short fiction has been published on the web at BEAT TO A PULP, A TWIST OF NOIR and THE BIG ADIOS.

12 Replies to “Empty Mile by Matthew Stokoe—review”

  1. Interesting that no one had enough guts to put their name to this review.

  2. Keith Rawson wrote the review. Unfortunately with the way our site is designed the reviewer names get stripped off when you go in to an article. The names are visible from the front page though.

    Way to be Mr. Stokoe, so what, he didn’t love your book.

  3. Fact: Only a chucklehead answers their critics or comments on their reviews. Good job, fool.

  4. Leave the guy alone, he’s one of the best of the grittier writers out there. Publisher’s Weekly said:

    Empty Mile
    Matthew Stokoe, Akashic, $16.95 paper (364p) ISBN 978-1-936070-12-1

    From the outset of this heartbreakingly powerful contemporary noir, Stokoe (High Life) gets the reader deeply emotionally invested in his guilt-ridden narrator, Johnny Richardson. Eight years after leaving his hometown of Oakridge, Calif., in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Johnny returns to face the consequences of a reckless youthful act. Instead of keeping an eye on his then 11-year-old brother, Stan, during an outing to a local lake, Johnny slipped off with his girlfriend, Marla, into the surrounding woods. Left alone, Stan, a smart kid but a poor swimmer, suffered brain damage after nearly drowning in the lake. In the present, Johnny and Marla reconnect, but a suicide prompted by sexual betrayal leads to more deaths. When Stan and Johnny’s widowed father disappears, Johnny must look after his brother on his own. Stokoe stays true to a bleak vision of the world as he enmeshes his characters in the kinds of tragic setups reminiscent of a Thomas Hardy novel. (July)

  5. Normally I don’t respond to comments in my own reviews, but I’ll make an exception this time.
    First and foremost, I’m not “picking” on anyone. As I mentioned at the end of the review, I do consider Mr. Stokoe to be a vastly talented novelist. His past novels were innovative, intense reading experiences. But in my opinion, this was not Mr. Stokoe’s strongest effort to date. I understand that writing a novel of any length is difficult task, but I felt that in the case of Emtpy Mile less would have been better than more and would have ramped up the overall intensity of the novel.
    I also want to point out, it’s a review, not a personal attack and not all reviews–whether for novels, films, television shows, CD’s, etc.,—going to be favorable.

  6. @Dave Sanders – Just so we’re all on the same page. The sum total of your argument is that because Publisher’s Weekly liked it we all should and that books only need one positive review. And further still that the only review we need should come PW.


    Especially when you consider that the metric established by Mr. Stokoe above is having a name attached to the review and that PW writes anonymous reviews.

    So anonymous attaboys are OK but not criticism of any type whether anonymous or named.

    Man, I’m finding this whole conversation enlightening.

    I think I’ll just post the title and author of every book that is released each week along with a synopsis and 5 stars.

    A chorus of weak cheers indeed.

  7. Brian, you must be the dumbest editor to ever grace the pages of a lit publication. There was no argument in my post, I was simply putting forward alternative to Keith’s review. Where did I suggest we should only read one review? Where did I suggest that that review should be from PW? Perhaps, as you seem so affronted by the Publisher’s Weekly review, you’re suggesting we should only pay attention to the reviews Spinetingler publishes? Surely, the best course for readers is to read a number of reviews so that they can learn from a number of opinions before they buy a particular book. [PORTION OF COMMENT DELETED], an alternative to his rather one-sided review, then, seems a legitimate offer to your readers.

  8. Nah, just a product of the Baltimore public school system.

    I’ll say to you what I’ve said in the past to others with dissenting opinions. Spinetingler is an open forum that has guest writers and encourages multiple reviews of the same title.

    So, if and when you’ve read the book write a review and I’ll post it. Consider it an open invitation.

    With that said, I’ll be deleting the part of your comment that needlessly disparages Keith.

  9. Actually, Dave, you did assert that Stokoe is “one of the best of the grittier writers out there” and you then quoted Publisher’s Weekly, which suggests that you’re using their review to justify your assertion about Stokoe being one of the best grittier writers.

    That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it. The problem is you haven’t expressed it as an opinion. You expressed it as a fact, and claimed PW as proof of fact. Which does suggest that any other opinions are wrong. If that’s the assessment you want of books, then that’s great. Read PW and get your pre-approved list and I’m sure you’ll find you love whatever they do.

    However, Keith’s review is balanced. It’s informed, as coming from someone who’s read more than one of Stokoe’s books. And it is what all reviews are, an opinion. You can disagree. Countering with an equally informed opinion could have generated an interesting discussion, one that others might read with even more interest than the review, and some of those people might have decided to check the book out and decide for themselves.

    You could have asserted your opinion without coming on here and calling people names and insulting them. It might have even increased the interest in the book. Instead, you did come on here and insulted people and acted like an obnoxious jerk, and now this is just about mudslinging, instead of about a book.

    Since I am a published author, and PW’s never spanked my bottom with a bad review, then I guess my opinion matters most here, according to the deleted portions of your comment. Any my opinion is that if you only want people to love you, don’t be an author. Not everyone is obligated to like your book. I can watch a movie or hear a song or read a book and say it’s all technically proficient, that there’s nothing “wrong” with it – it just doesn’t wow me personally. And thank God we’re all entitled to have different tastes, because nobody gets to tell me that I have to love chick lit or romance novels or cozies. Each individual consumer has the right to make their own assessment.

    This isn’t some uninformed Amazon review that says, “This book sucks, don’t read it,” or “Leave the guy alone, he’s one of the best of the grittier writers out there.”

    I’ve never been one to believe in universal opinion. I’d just rather that when someone disagrees with me, that they try to explain why so I can understand their view. If someone tells me they don’t like something because it “just sucks” their opinion isn’t going to carry much weight. And if they tell me something else is just “the best” that’s also not going to sway me on its own. So feel free to disagree, but if you can’t do it by demonstrating your own intelligence instead of trying to insult the intelligence of others you aren’t going to change our minds.

    This whole conversation has completely put me off reading this particular book for the time being. And that’s not our objective here. Our objective is to raise the level of discourse about books. Dave and Mr. Stokoe haven’t contributed to that end in any way.

  10. This is why I don’t write reviews of current books. Give everyone a good review and you’re a shill. Give a bad one and you are wide-open to attacks. You don’t have the cover of the less intimate format of a newspaper. I am not surprised that Keith responded with a defense of his review, I would have to, but I am surprised the author chose to attack him–only widening the scope of it.

  11. Awesome that all these comments are drawing so much attention to the review.

    Great job, K-Dog. It’s like in the old movies where some jock throws a punch at a greaser at the Soda Shoppe and the entire place turns into a donnybrook.

    Notice how I just plugged Frank’s novel discreetly, too.