This book stinks.
I don't mean that in a disparaging way. You can smell this book. It's an unpleasant mixture of rot, shit and blood. You can feel the slimy viscera as you turn the pages. It stains your hands.
The story of Cows revolves around Steven. A man who has lived under the reign of terror of his abusive mother, who he rightly refers to as the Hagbeast. He pines for the woman who lives upstairs, he bears the mental and physical abuse the Hagbeast heaps upon him and he begins doing grunt work at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the city. At the job he meets Cripps, the profoundly disturbed foreman. However, Cripps turns out to be the catalyst Steven needs to rid himself of the Hagbeast and start a normal life. A normal, happy life like the families on TV.
There is a lot going on in this 180+ page book. Its story is bizarre and nightmarish. It deals with themes of alienation, 'release', the oppressed becoming oppressors and the effects of media on the everyday life. As previously stated, this is not a pleasant read. Cows is relentless in its violence and perversion. The only book I can think to compare it to is Hubert Selby Jr's The Room. It's no surprise that Stokoe names Selby as a major influence. Like Selby, Stokoe creates very human characters. Even as they engage is behavior that should be unbelievable and unlikable, their hellish circumstances make them feel sympathetic and their reactions understandable.
At times, the novel seems uneven in its tone. The book reads as the darkest of dark comedy, but some of the funny moments feel they were unintentional. Attempts at shock that just ended up being too silly. However, this is a case of stumbling without ever falling. Stokoe is a skilled enough writer, that he absorbed me into moments and plot turns that, if described by me, would seem absolutely ridiculous. Ridiculous in ways that would take one out of the story, that is. The moments are still ridiculous in an 'absurdist' way.
This is a harrowing read. However, if you like strange stories and are looking for a read that challenges the mind and the stomach, I highly recommend this. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Stokoe's work.
Buy Cows by Matthew Stokoe here.