Review: “Koko,” Peter Straub

Pros: Extremely well-crafted
Cons: I had a lot of trouble getting into it
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Peter Straub’s thriller Koko (Blue Rose Trilogy), a handful of Vietnam vets in 1982 find themselves caught up in a mystery. Dr. Michael Poole is unhappily married and at a crossroads in his life. Lawyer Harry Beevers is obsessed with getting rich and finding fame and glory. Restaurant owner Tina Pumo takes great pride in his Vietnamese restaurant in New York City. Working man Conor Linklater floats from job to job, and feels ill-at-ease among his more well-to-do comrades. The four reunite to see the Vietnam Memorial on Veteran’s Day in 1982, and Beevers wants something from the others. While the group was in Vietnam, sometimes enemy corpses would be found with eyes and ears missing and “KOKO” scrawled on a playing card shoved in the mouth. Apparently several corpses matching this description have shown up recently in Singapore, and Beevers thinks the culprit is Tim Underhill, a writer and another soldier from their unit. He wants the group to go to Singapore and find Underhill. He plans to write a book based on the experience, finding the fame and fortune he craves. But going after Underhill will be harder, and more dangerous, than Beevers imagines. Especially when the remains of the unit become Koko’s next targets.

Everything seems to come back to Ia Thuc, the site of horrible events that happened during the Vietnam War. Events that Beevers (then a Lieutenant, or as his soldiers called him, “the Lost Boss”, for walking them into the middle of an ambush) and another soldier (now dead) named Dengler were courts-martialed for, but then acquitted. We get to see the events of Ia Thuc unfold bit by bit, detail by detail, first through implication and then through actual description. Ia Thuc is the dark heart of the group, and it’s clear they all carry it with them no matter how successful (or not) they’ve managed to become since then.

The characters are incredible–they’re the highlight of this book. I’m not sure I exactly like any of them as such, but they have an amazing amount of depth. And there’s a varying amount of stuff to dislike about them–they aren’t uniformly terrible people or anything. They have their good sides and their bad sides.

Another highlight of the book is the atmosphere in Singapore, Bangkok, and New York City. A whole lot of detail goes into making these places unique and engaging. Plenty of events that don’t seem at first to impact the main storyline go into creating the world these characters inhabit.

The real problem for me is that I had trouble getting into the book until at least halfway through. There’s just so much verbiage, and so much detail, that it kept me at arm’s length. Perhaps if I were old enough to be more familiar with the Vietnam War I’d find the story more interesting–the fallout of that war is really the story here.

Content note: sex, violence, and racism.

This is an extremely well-crafted book, but it still didn’t grab hold of me for quite some time.

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