Peter Straub's entry into this cultural reckoning of the conflict was his ambitious 1988 novel Koko (Signet Books paperback, July 1989, cover by Robert Korn). One of the most ubiquitous of all 1980s paperback novels found in many a used bookstore's horror section, Koko's cover art of primary colors and thick, high-contrast spine has captured my eye for years. It wasn't ever very high on my to-read list, however, as I knew it was more mainstream thriller and that it dealt with Vietnam, which was not my thing at all when I was in my early twenties (despite the fact that I was devouring films like the aforementioned Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, but that was because they happened to be great '70s movies, not because they were about Vietnam). How glad I am that I finally took the leap and read it!
Straub in 1988
Straub's book is about four men, Vietnam vets who served together, on a journey, circling around a secret, a secret unknowable and unimaginable, a secret that may not even have happened: a Schrodinger's cat event of battletime horror. Michael Poole, Harry Beevers, Tina Pumo, Conor Linklater: a children's doctor whose marriage is breaking up, an asshole lawyer, a NYC restaurateur in over his head, an unambitious carpenter. In shades of Straub's horror breakthrough Ghost Story (1979), these men live their lives around a horrible event; in this case, something that happened in a cave in the Vietnamese village of Ia Thuc during the war, akin to the real-life My Lai massacre. Koko opens with a powerful, resonant, emotional scene of the men reuniting after more than a decade in Washington DC to visit the Vietnam Memorial:
For Poole, the actual country of Vietnam was now just another place... its history and culture had briefly, disastrously intersected ours. But the actual country of Vietnam was not Vietnam; that was here, in these American names and faces.
Having learned of a serial killer named Koko in southeast Asia who may be one of their fellow vets from their old combat unit, the four men begin an international search: Beevers, Poole, and Linklater travel to Asia to track him down; Pumo remains in New York and deals with the demons of restaurant management and a one-night stand that goes horribly wrong. Visiting Singapore and Bangkok, the three men begin searching for answers no one can give them, carousing East Asian bars and whorehouses, being taken to secret shows in dingy basements where humans are killed for expensive thrills, plumbing their own natures in that Heart of Darkness manner. These colorful travelogue sequences are interspersed with scenes from the war, and we meet the other soldiers in their unit: Manuel Dengler, Tim Underhill, Victor Spitalny... who is Koko? What is Koko? Fortunate reader, you will learn.
In the eerie and violent chapters featuring the title character, Koko's psychic state reminds me very much of Francis Dollarhyde in Red Dragon: the cunning, the mania, the grandiosity, the sick poetry of it, and this bit about "the nearness of ultimate things." It's a dead-eyed glare, an interiorized fantasy world so powerful that he must remake the real world in trauma. While Straub does not trade in the same forensic ingenuity as that Thomas Harris title, the madnesses of men and its origins are kindred: "God's hand hung in the air, pointing at him."
This is the kind of full-on novel that takes up a lot of space in your head; this review has touched on only a portion of what it offers. Straub's fine and thoughtful prose, rich vein of humanity, eye and ear for marital discord, and ability to launch widescreen emotional horrors of deep, profound impact, will satisfy the discerning reader. For such a thick tome (600 pages), the story moves along weightlessly, fleet-footed yet penetrating, disturbing but empathetic, never bogged down in useless detail or dialogue, everything in its right place. The climax is in another unlit cavern in a modern American city, where everything meets one final time, where "eternity happened all at once, backwards and forward."
Reviews found online range from "masterpiece" to "meh," but I can tell from some of those "meh"s that the readers were expecting a giant feast of guttural horror—which Koko surely is not. Two volumes follow in a very loose trilogy: Mystery (1990) and The Throat (1993), and I know little about either, but I've added them to my must-read list. Koko might not be a perfect novel—perhaps its sights are sometimes beyond its reach—which is not even something that needs to be said, but for the adventurous horror fan who doesn't mind the occasional foray into non-supernatural madness, a huge armored tank of a book that looks into one of America's darker eras... Koko is singing a song you'll want to hear.
Couldn't believe Straub himself retweeted me...!