Misguided in every aspect of its intention, design and execution, actually misguided at its core, this resolute display of narrative perversity now and again nearly succeeds, quite mysteriously, in its far-too-evident ambition to surpass the time-honored conventions of genre fiction. Before I describe my own vital but unacknowledged contributions to the achievement, simple modesty requires that I point out that KOKO, for all its flaws, deserves a greater degree of consideration than would ordinarily be granted to a desperately played-out horror writer’s attempt at producing an international thriller in the manner of Robert Ludlum, or David Morrell while in the midst of a classic mid-life crisis. My own role in its creation was crucial merely in its timeliness.
Near the end of August, 1983, not long after the completion, so to speak, of my friend’s minimal “role” in the writing of the Stephen King novel, THE TALISMAN, I arrived unannounced at his Westport palace with the idea of “filling in the gaps” of our recent histories during the five days between my return from the Conference on Popular Culture on the lovely isle of Corfu (at which I had been awarded my second prestigious “Atwood” while enjoying the hospitality of the Earl of Macclesfield’s charming villa, “The Antlers”) and my return flight, delayed by reason of my airline’s intransigent notions concerning the allocation of frequent flier miles, to the humbler comforts of Popham. The only economical means of managing the journey from Kennedy airport to Westport, Connecticut is by a van or bus under the management of the sadly misnamed Connecticut Limousine Company, which deposits the weary traveler in the parking lot of a Westport motel. I called my former companion of the sandbox from a pay telephone in the lobby of this establishment and was gratified by his willingness to appear upon the moment and deliver myself and the usual luggage to his abode. Unusually for one lately so absorbed by his own concerns, he seemed cheered by the prospect of my visit.
Within minutes a new Mercedes, even longer and more splendid than it predecessor, spun into the motel parking lot, driven by a deeply, in fact almost alarmingly, sun-tanned Peter. The fellow had virtually grilled himself to the color of a well-baked Gingerbread Boy. Not only that, in place of his usual garb he wore a short-sleeved polo shirt, khaki shorts and loafers without socks! His language had undergone a similar transformation, incorporating many casual obscenities previously unheard in his speech and frequent usage of the meaningless interjection, “man,” as in the startling phrase with which he greeted this long-lost friend, “Put, man, shit, it’s really good to see you, man, you know, fuck, man!” I believe I concealed my shock at this coarsening of speech and manner even as I worked out its most likely causes during our wild ride back to Straub Manor, a journey which included lay-overs at two favored drinking establishments. My friend, evidently, was in no hurry to rejoin the domestic scene.
The first of these establishments, a mediocre restaurant located a short distance down the Post Road and named something like Mahler’s, or perhaps Schoenberg’s, was remarkable only for a barren, wholly suburban ugliness epitomized by the bar to which Peter urged me, a comfortless and irregularly shaped slab of marble fitted with spindly metal stools. The youth behind this modernist, in fact all but Cubist structure greeted my friend with a wide grin and a cabalistic handshake. Any doubts that the sun- blackened author had attained the status of “regular” at this dubious and even slightly sinister place were dispelled by the incomprehensible conversation chiefly, in so far as I could follow it, about the comings and goings of mutual acquaintances which began the instant this fellow placed Peter’s brimming glass upon the bar and rather grudgingly, I felt, filled my own order for a Lime Rickey diluted with a splash of Coca-Cola. (No prude, I enjoy a cocktail as well as the next fellow, but three in the afternoon seemed too early for a genuine Rickey, much less for whatever filled my friend’s glass, a potion I judged by its odor to be gasohol.) During the hour we spent at this inexplicable place, so involved was Peter in conversation with the bartending youth, as well as the with waitresses arriving for their evening shift, each of whom greeted him with a glad cry and a fond embrace, also with two smooth thugs with slick-backed hair I understood to be the owners, that he and I exchanged but a few sentences. This left me sufficient time to interpret the event in the following way: if after some three years in this affluent and self-consciously artsy community his chosen companions were bartenders and waitresses, Peter and Westport were a bad match indeed.
Our next stop, an even unhappier establishment known as the Black Mutt and located within an ancient houseboat berthed at a riverbank, deepened this impression. Here the attractions were what my deluded friend described as the “ambiance,” meaning the general gloom, the listing stools, the battered old bar lined with sots, and above all the prematurely aged, decidedly common bawd serving up drinks, whose faded good looks Peter found attractive. Like all her cynical breed, the floozy knew to keep her distance while returning his flirtatious sallies, thereby compelling my friend to turn his conversational efforts toward myself. These had mainly to do with jazz musicians whom he had succeeded in befriending or at least to some small degree attaching himself, their various approaches to improvisation, yawn, I mean, really, the disquisitions of the musically illiterate upon such things are helplessly infantile, the habits and quirks of these obscure folk and the many hours their devoted fan had spent in company with them. Sadly, he was trying to impress me with the familiarity he enjoyed with these gentlemen, whose names, I confess, I failed one and all to recognize. It was they, of course, who had so affected my friend’s speech patterns. My poor old friend had so lost his way that he aped the hipster language of his jazz musicians and consorted with waitresses and bartenders – Westport had provoked him into a ruinous second adolescence, and while we swilled our fifth or perhaps sixth drinks of the day I vowed to do my utmost to bring about his return to the safety of his native Midwest.
During our jet-propelled, careening drive to his palatial house, he confirmed my observations by singing along, more or less, with the jazz solos on the tapes he fed into the car’s sound system. “Get hip to this, man,” he told me while blasting through a four-way stop, “I don’t know why it took me so long to. realize, that I’m an artist, not a bourgeois square, I mean, man, damn, I blow like Bird, man, you dig, except Bird blew through his horn, and I blow with words, you dig?” In response to this pathetic utterance, I could but answer, “I dig, man, you can be assured of that,” and wondered what sight would greet me upon arrival at 1, Beachside Common. I imagined Susan puffing on a “reefer” and attired in black tights, skirt, sweater and beret while the children wandered in foul diapers through a landscape of record sleeves and empty bottles. The scene which greeted our arrival was of a deeply reassuring normality. Evidently accustomed to her spouse’s new incarnation, Susan joined us in the manse’s handsome library for another round of drinks while my friend discoursed upon the fine points of several “solos,” then disappeared to prepare the evening’s entirely adequate repast while the children squalled and screamed in the manner of ordinary tots, those not under the sway of imitation jazz musicians. To my surprise, Susan never betrayed even the slightest displeasure at my unheralded arrival, my characteristic mountain of bags or the declaration that I should be joining the household for a few days. She even took the time to admire my second “Atwood” and attend to my descriptions of the dear old Earl’s residence high upon the curving streets of Corfu. By that time, I imagine, she had become accustomed to just about everything.
Over the next few days, we settled into a routine. As of old ensconced in his office, now within a bed prepared on one of the dormer platforms, I arose at seven and joined the rest of the family downstairs so that Peter might spend a couple of hours writing, or thinking about writing, or whatever he did while playing the endless records which penetrated all the rest of the house. In practice, this meant that I was left to my own devices while Susan ferried the children hither and yon. At noon there was some sort of hasty lunch. From one to three o’clock, my old friend and I occupied adjacent lawn chairs and read books while Peter, clad only in his khaki shorts, soaked up yet more damaging ultra-violet rays and several bottles of St. Pauli Girl beer. After that he threw on a polo shirt, gestured me toward his Mercedes and sped off to one or both of the bars we had visited on my first day, there to drink gasohol until six or seven, when we rocketed homeward for the evening meal. At nine, when the children had been dispatched to their beds, he and I returned to his office, where he drank single-malt Scotch whiskey, now and then permitting me a miserly dram. During these hours, which often extended into the wee hours, he frequently repaired to his desk to conduct lengthy telephone conversations rendered inaudible to me by the incessant moaning of saxophones and pounding of drums emanating from the gigantic speakers installed on every side, front and back, and even overhead.
During these late hours, he at last confessed to me that his latest project was a sort of thriller involving Vietnam veterans and with no discernible supernatural element whatsoever. So daunting did he find this basic material – a plot even he knew to be better suited to a half-hour of television than a novel-length work of fiction — that he had been unable to write any more than a kind of introductory but unrelated short story, which he declined to offer for my inspection. He had spent months writing no more than increasingly irrelevant notes. “Put, baby,” he said while pouring another twenty dollars of malt whiskey into his glass, “I don’t know if I can still blow my horn any more, you dig? Can’t hear the changes, man, can’t get into the groove like I did when I was a young cat, sometimes it’s like my talent went Splitsville, man, this is some crazy shit, dig?”
I couldn’t help myself — I let him have it straight between the eyes with both barrels. What I said to my despairing old buddy must remain forever confidential, but from that day to this he has at least managed to conduct himself like a responsible citizen and not a blear-eyed denizen of sordid late-night haunts. Neither does he sprinkle his conversation with filth. I wish only that I had succeeded in deterring him from writing the tediously long thriller on which he had embarked and in persuading him to return to his native soil. Even the imprecations of a devoted friend can only go so far, it seems. At least he changed his ways and did a decent job of writing KOKO. Despite its irresolute conclusion and frequent lapses into inconsequentiality, this book manages to keep its head above water most of the time. The sour, vindictive chapters set in Milwaukee should have been edited out of the book altogether. No one who did not serve in Vietnam is capable of writing about that experience. That accepted, Peter’s effort to do the undoable contains at least a poignant tone which renders several passages of this muddled but oddly effective tome very nearly… what shall I say? Moving? No, but “affecting” will do well enough.
Putney Tyson Ridge