Friday, July 5, 2019

Koko by Peter Straub (1988): Born Down in a Dead Man's Town

In a way the Vietnam War was an Eighties war, much as we revisited it in that decade and as its after-effects began to be confronted in our most popular culture. After 1975, people weren't eager to talk about it; the wound still fresh, the stitches still in place. Of course there had been books and movies in the previous decade, like The Deer Hunter and Dispatches, Going After Cacciato and Coming Home, but an Eighties character such as Rambo (and even a performer like Bruce Springsteen from that era) more embodied a perfect wish fulfillment fantasy for the decade of excess, as the damaged national psyche transformed itself into oiled, striated, male musculature pushed to the limit of human endurance. We're back, baby! Nothing's gonna stop us now.

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."

By far my favorite sequence—in a novel filled with great sequences—is a trip to Milwaukee to track down Spitalny's and Dengler's families. This visit to a sad, broken, gloomy town to speak with sad, broken, gloomy people is a glimpse into a part of America that isn't a beacon of shining hope: these are people with petty approaches to life, who exile themselves from the main street of life and gloat over past pain, who never seem to grow out of the small-minded provincialites, who cripple themselves and indulge in the small sick sadistic voice that whispers of their inadequacy and vanity. Small-town America, as horror reminds us over and over and over, is rife with the evil of banality.

One of the criticisms/complaints I hear against Straub is that he is long-winded, pretentious, ponderous, boring. I mean, I guess I can see that. He writes big books and he's not just writing scary ones; he's after bigger prey. So yes, Straub, for all his expansive depiction of human nature in its deeps and valleys, also often obscures certain details from the reader, leaving them to ponder if they missed a sentence or phrase or snatch of dialogue somewhere along the line. No, that's not it: Straub uses implication, a shaded eye, to keep some aspects of the narrative in doubt. And indeed, the central trauma at the center—that village massacre involving these men when they were young soldiers—is open to interpretation.

What I'm saying is: Straub doesn't always tell you everything you need to know. Is this a literary pretense? Is it lazy writing? Or is it because the truth, for all we venerate it, is unknowable, unfixed, changeable through the stories we tell? Not for nothing has Straub created a character who has written the short stories Straub has already written ("Blue Rose" and "The Juniper Tree") and published. Meta-fiction has been hot for a long time now, authors winking at us from inside the pages of their own work, but Straub's version is not whimsical, ironic, jokey, or cute; it simply is. We write our stories every day; this is as commonplace an idea as the fact that sometimes an author doesn't even know what his story is about. So let's keep things interesting by keeping some things in the dark. But illumination can come from an unexpected source: as one character thinks to himself while reading a paperback novel called The Dead Zone during his travels: "Improbability and violence overflowed flowed from everyday life, and Stephen King seemed to know that." That's good stuff.

To readers who like their horror graphic and nasty, I'd say there's nothing here for you; this is not that kind of novel. To readers who like to step off into a larger landscape of human tragedy, Koko is recommended. Straub is not trying to scare the reader; there are no attempts at jump scares or spine chills. These fears dissipate in the morning light. "The nearness of ultimate things" he notes again and again, an existential mantra that implies a whole host of misery and revelation: those are frightening things in and of themselves.


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...!


wbogacz said...

This has been in my TBR for some time now (pretty much . . . years), since Straub is HORROR to me, and there's a big pile. Vietnam is also a current kick of mine (and those movies already watched along with many, many, movies). Thanks for giving this a push.

Kurt said...

Very cool that Straub retweeted you! As for KOKO, I read this one while I was immersed in my junior year at college when it first came out in paperback. There is a ton of it I've forgotten, but I do remember one of the men is reading The Ambassadors by Henry James in the novel, and "escaping" into it when he can. The Ambassadors is an intensely difficult novel with its lead coming to terms with a culture initially alien to him, through a plot that is almost entirely interior to its protagonist. I've wondered about that since; why The Ambassadors and what was Straub saying with the theme, which probably means I should reread KOKO. I loved MYSTERY in the Blue Rose trilogy. Very good review you've done.

Luis said...

I'm not afraid of long novels nor of those that tell a story subtly. However, I have tried to read Straub several Times (Julia, Ghost Story) and his oblique style has never gelled with me. His prose just doesn't engage me and yes, he does tend to ramble on and become very boring. I know that many praise him as a "literary" horror novelist but that comes at the price of being dull. I do praise your honest review however, you obviously likes the novel but did not shy away from mentioning its shortcomings.

Charlie said...

Great review! I love the scope if your writing and selective descriptions of the book. Not a huge fan of horror but after stumbling onto your page I'm definitely going to give Koko a go.

Iain said...

You owe it to yourself to read Mystery and The Throat. They work as a trilogy and as a kind of exploration of the thriller/mystery genre.

nosferatu said...

I remember that in one of his books (Unutterable Horror), S.T. Joshi wrote that he hated Koko, but he named The Throat as one the very best novels of its kind ever written. So , if you liked Koko, maybe you're in for a treat on The Throat.

Will Errickson said...

Iain--I have since read MYSTERY and really liked it a lot. Some great characters and situations and Straub's great writing, but it's even less horror than KOKO--that is, it is not a horror novel--so I won't be reviewing it here.

nosferatu--Joshi's a weird one. I have THROAT on my shelf and will get to it someday!

Swelle said...

If you like your Vietnam & horror mixed together, the 1974 film Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) is well worth watching; and like the much-later Jacob's Ladder, is ultimately pretty bleak & depressing. (1974 seems like an especially early date to start dealing with the national trauma of Vietnam, so I'm not sure how well this film did upon release...)

Will Errickson said...

I've seen DEATHDREAM several times, it's a fave early '70s horror flick of mine!