Sunday, April 13, 2014


"So what's it like to kill someone?"
"I can't tell you."
- Unnamed Cabbie and Michael Poole

                   Koko is brutal. It is, perhaps, the most disturbing and uncomfortable book I have ever had the "pleasure" of reading. I phrase it that way because I can acknowledge that the book is well-written, that Peter Straub has an amazing turn of phrase, and that there is a brilliant thread at work here. But what Straub manages to do with Koko is to explore the feelings of trauma, guilt, and psychological suffering felt by its protagonists, to take you inside their heads, and to allow you to identify with them. You yourself may never know the trauma or never know what trauma does to people, but for the time it will take you to read this book, this uncompromising and singleminded work of fiction, the feelings will at least be right. I could not read this book all at once. I may never read it ever again. But hopefully, if you find this and read it, and if you find in it the same things I did, it will leave its mark on you. And that, above all else, is what defines a successful work of literature. If you're never able to shake the feelings it gives you, it's won. It's done its job. 

                I admit when I first started reading Koko, I was turned off by it. The copy on the dust jacket was utterly ridiculous to me after reading so many books that made the same claims. I knew off the bat that this would probably be more psychological thriller than horror novel and started looking for the proper cues to tell me who the murderer truly was. I even complained about how the characters missed an obvious clue about the villain a third of the way through the book. But as I read, I started to see where it was going. I wondered where it would all end up and how. And then when I figured out what the book was really about, the pieces suddenly clicked into place and what I saw as disparate, offhand elements suddenly came together and clicked. Koko, you see, is not a book about four men, or a book about a serial killer, or even a book about the frightening underbelly of urban legends in southeast Asia. It's a book about trauma, guilt, pain, and exactly how far you can push the human psyche until it snaps. 

And it is brilliant.

More, as always, below

                 Koko tells the story of four men: Michael Poole, a pediatrician; Conor Linklater, a jumpy and anxious carpenter; Tina Pumo, a successful restaurateur; and Harry Beevers, an attorney at a law firm and former disgraced lieutenant in the US Army. The four served together during the Vietnam War, and in particular were party to some rather disturbing events surrounding the village of Ia Thuc and the area known as Dragon Valley. They reunite in Washington DC for the unveiling of the Vientam War Memorial, but soon the reunion takes a darker turn. Beevers has discovered a series of strange and grisly murders, all marked by the same signature: A regimental playing card from their unit with the word "KOKO" scrawled on it. The men surmise that it has to be a member of their unit almost immediately, and believe it to be a comrade of theirs who never came back to the US but instead stayed in Asia and apparently suffered some kind of breakdown. At Beevers' urging, Conor and Michael accompany him first to Singapore and then to Bangkok on Koko's trail. 

And then things get weird.

                 None of the men are particularly stable to begin with. Conor is twitchy and mentally unsound, Michael suffers from hallucinations and guilt that his son's cancer may have had something to do with him, and Beevers seems like the most well-adjusted but is clearly hiding some pretty dark and disturbing things of his own beneath that surface, most prominently a need for justification and glory. And as they track their friend Tim Underhill through clubs and bars and parking garages, it's clear they're tracking something else, too. Something more intangible. Meanwhile, a killer with the almost preternatural ability to move from place to place, vanish in plain sight, and make his face forgettable is tracking the men. He's got four playing cards, all with their names on them. And he calls himself Koko...

                  What really sold the book for me was the characters. You spend a lot of time in the heads of Conor, Tina, and Michael, and after spending some time, I got to know them a little better. You could start to understand their actions more. Part of what makes the book so uncomfortable and disturbing is that the reader is spending almost all their time inside the heads of several disturbed men. Peter Straub really opens up Michael, for instance, more or less the central POV character, and really nails his detachment. There's a genuine ache as he realizes he's watching his life slide out of view and there is nothing he can do about it. Tina may be something of a coward and completely unable to face or process the murders, but the reader gets the sense that it's because he's a good guy trying to put his past behind him. It's also made very clear that he didn't participate in many of the atrocities back in Vietnam, and that he genuinely cares for those around him. He doesn't want to poke an anthill. Even Koko gets some characterization and a small degree of sympathy. The Koko passages are written with glimpses that Koko has some kind of brain damage or mental complications, and definitely a history of abuse. 

                 Second, the tone really helps the book. Koko is not lurid and Peter Straub does not make it lurid. Everything is detached, matter-of-fact, and never overloads the detail. Were it not for the narrative and the insight into characters' heads, Koko could almost be written in the style of a nonfiction true-crime narrative, one of the ones that sticks more on the account side rather than the sensational side of things. There are some scenes in  the novel-- truly disturbing things, things you would never want to witness in person-- that I had to read over a second time because they were handled matter-of-factly. They were handled either in offhand tones, because the men involved in the acts didn't see anything wrong with them, or in once case because Conor, being who he is, does not understand what is going on in front of him. There is, and I know this is weird to talk about with a book, a certain amount of grit to Koko. The entire thing feels like a thriller made in the mid to late seventies. Even when there are more surreal sequences, they're handled with a certain grit and veracity that makes them seem real, even if they turn out to be a dream or something not quite as real. 

                And finally, the plot is well thought out, with some genuine surprises here and there. The identity of the killer is well-concealed, and when it finally comes out, it's entirely appropriate and calls back to earlier points of the book. The ending is one where it's not certain whether any of the main characters will come out of this alive, and indeed as the book goes along it builds dread at a slowly methodical pace that one of the men the reader meets at the beginning of the novel is definitely not going to make it. I began to dread every POV section labeled "Koko", as it meant the killer would get one step closer to whatever his goal really was. That Straub did this with such skill, and actually had me going for a while that I'd figured out the book, just to pull the lever and drop me into a situation to which I had no way to process and no response. 

               But there are some concerns I have. First, like I said, this is not an enjoyable read. It's a good book, but I can't imagine many who'd find a book about men coming to terms with their own trauma and guilt mixed in with serial murder and Southeast Asian underworld activities fun. If there are, they're probably on a government watch list somewhere where they belong. It's like one of those movies that everyone agrees is a good movie, but shouldn't be watched more than once. I do give Peter Straub credit, though, it's a more cerebral disturbing than most horror writers get, and in a better way than any "extreme horror" writers have ever been able to capture. Second, I would like to warn my readers that while there is a conclusion, the book doesn't end. 

                   In the end, though, these are small quibbles in a larger work, and Koko is well worth the read. Once. Only once. I'm not sure this is the kind of book I ever want to read again, but I suggest that anyone who reads this review find it and look for it yourself. You may like what you find. You may be horrified. But Peter Straub's best feature is that he's able to get inside his readers' heads, and he does that here. 

Peter Straub Month continues with:
Ghost Story
- Floating Dragon
- Shadowland

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