The 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.