Highways to a War
By Christopher J. Koch
Viking, 469 pp., $23.95
His Asian friends call him "The Lucky One," for his ability to show up at a firefight, shoot his film, and return safely to a hotel crammed with correspondents who would rather find out about the battles in an air conditioned briefing room.
But now Michael Langford, an Australian war photographer known for his daring, is missing. He has slipped from Thailand into Cambodia, where he knows that the Khmer Rouge, only a year into their carnage, consider Western reporters and photographers to be CIA spies. Has Langford permanently disappeared? It is a prospect few of his friends believe or accept.
Raymond Barton, a boyhood friend and the executor of Langford's estate, begins searching Langford's taped diaries and talking to his fellow journalists to find out what has happened.
Australian novelist Christopher J. Koch uses this search to take readers through a sweat-drenched decade of war in Indochina.
War photograhers are a breed apart. And Koch, through his own written lens, captures Langford and his mates as though they are on a roll of Tri-X film being developed in front of the reader. As Barton looks at pictures of Langford and his partner, Jim Feng, in Vietnam in 1965, he sees men sure of their own immortality.
"Vietnam in the '60s was the peak of their youth," Koch writes, adding a sentence later: "But Vietnam was also the place where their youth casually vanished. It vanished while they shot the action; vanished while they joked."
It takes a remarkable novelist to pull far enough away to see the big picture while not losing track of the details that make a book worth reading. But Koch does it - writing a novel with fresh images, dialogue, and technique. It is not surprising that he could pull it off. His first novel, "A Year of Living Dangerously," was an intense story of a Western correspondent during the fall of Sukarno in Indonesia.
In "Highways," Langford and his comrades are moving through a dark Asian tunnel. Like everyone else during the decade, they are left to their own devices to try to figure out what the tunnel means.
The book does not end with North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the Palace gates. Instead, the story comes to an end when Barton finally tracks down the final frames of Langford's life.