Book Review : Peter Straub - Koko (1988)
Most people know Peter Straub for being the guy who once wrote a badass novel with Stephen King. Straub is a very successful author in his own right who's been writing bestseller over bestseller for decades now, but an oddly small number of readers seem to know that fact. In order to celebrate one of the unsung heroes of genre literature (and, quite frankly, because we just felt like doing it), This is Horror's Bob Pastorella and I decided to revisit Peter Straub's most successful novels in 2017 and I'll kick things off today with a review of Koko, the first volume of his critically acclaimed Blue Rose Trilogy. I had never read Straub prior to this experience, so his universe was entirely new to me. I can't say Koko convinced me he was the John Lennon of his partnership with Stephen King, there still was a lot to like about it. Straub was at least the Paul McCartney of the affair.
So, Koko is the complicated story of the survivor of a U.S Army platoon deployed during the Vietnam war. The boys are trying to move on with their lives the best they can and all miserably failing in their own way. When they happen to meet during a veterans parade, their lieutenant Harry Beevers addresses the terrible secret that binds them together: Koko. Another member of their platoon went off the deep end after the horrible events of Ia Thuc and began an international killing spree. Who is the culprit? Is it the good-natured and creative Tim Underhill who since became a successful author? Is it the arrogant Victor Spitalny who went AWOL soon after and has never been heard from since? Michael, Connor, Pumo and Harry will not be able to go on with their lives until they went to the bottom of this.
Criticizing a twenty-eight year old novel from an iconic author is complicated task. The quality is not to be debated, but rather its place in the author's legacy. Koko is a solid psychological thriller. Peter Straub are more successful than the conventional PTSD-afflicted soldiers because of the powerful bond between them. These guys live for one another. They are not only bound by fear and horror but also by love. Soldiers are always depicted in fiction as battle-scarred trainwrecks living in a psychological no man's land with their ghosts and Straub complexified the portrait enough to make it compelling and, more important, make a pertinent statement about war: it's a sacrifice. Soldiers are sacrificing their lives on the battlefield AND beyond to a greater purpose that is neither tangible to them or to the people their sacrifices themselves for. The disconnection veterans suffer from society is not only palpable in Koko, it's compelling and understandable. There's no higher call to fiction than to explain the inexplicable, I believe and Peter Straub does that in this novel.
That said, Koko has issues that make it more tedious than it should be. First of all, it didn't age quite gracefully. Peter Straub's countercultural point of view on Vietnam war was undoubtedly extremely pertinent when Koko was published at the end of the Reagan years, but the idea this war was a horrible clusterfuck with no clear winners is generally accepted today. This is most problematic in Straub's countercultural depiction of Southeast Asia as a wounded and cagey territory, suspicious and hostile to white men strutting through like they own the place. I have no qualms about the psychological accuracy of Straub's political statement, but there is close to a hundred pages of this and it just doesn't hold the same power in 2017 than it did in 1988. It's nobody's fault really. Time's a motherfucker like that. I had my qualms with Koko's mystery also, which I believe carried a few extra pounds of drama and avoidable stereotypes, but Peter Straub was being ambitious so it's hard to fault him for that.It's just that the accumulation of the aformentioned issues weighed the novel down for me despite the stellar execution.
I've enjoyed Koko from somewhat of a polite distance. I believe it's a slightly overambitious novel, but there's no denying Peter Straub's extraordinary narrative talent. The man can deliver a story in compelling fashion and Koko is a novel that both aims to educate and entertain and it's rather successful at both. I wouldn't call it an intoxicating read, but it measures up quite favorable to doorstop thrillers being released today, so I encourage you to read it if you're into the James Rollins and Vince Flynn of this world. Koko is a considerably better novel than whatever these two can come up with. Next for Bob Pastorella and I's Peter Straub's retrospective is the second volume of the Blue Rose Trilogy Mystery, which I believe is somewhat of a prequel to Koko. This is complicated, but also exciting. Peter Straub has a creative paradigm that it entirely his own and I'm looking forward to get the answers to the few lingering questions that Koko didn't quite answer.