Brendan I. Koerner's "Now the Hell Will Start" follows the true-life story of Herman Perry, a young black playboy from Washington, D.C., drafted into the Army and shipped to the Indo-Burmese jungles to build the Ledo Road, a Sisyphean attempt to connect Allied supply depots with China during World War II. Years of nigh-on-forced labor in the sweltering, tiger- and headhunter-infested slog caused many of the soldiers to clutch consolation in cheap drugs, getting high in dark, wet tents while their uniforms literally rotted off.
Perry succumbed. Worse, his drug use provoked insubordinance against the white officers who commanded the predominantly black recruits, awarding him multiple visits to the brig. Horribly, after a year of hard work, incessant rain, flippant officers and cheap opium, Perry — provoked — killed a superior officer. He escaped into the jungle, certain he'd be captured within hours. Instead, he became the focus of one of the most notorious manhunts of the war, living with the mountain tribes of headhunters and becoming a folk hero some called "The Jungle King."
Koerner's an amazing reporter — my first mentor, along with Choire Sicha, to drum into my head how effective informed, dense writing could be — and has a knack for transmuting reams of research into taut narrative. (He was one of Slate.com's excellent "Explainer" columnists for years.) It doesn't hurt that Perry's story cuts a path through subjects with which I am endlessly entranced: racism, drugs, survival, war, sorrow, and death — all wrapped in one man's outrageous, tragic adventure.
It should be implicit since I'm writing this in the first place, but "Now the Hell Will Start" is recommended! If all goes to plan, we'll get Brendan online soon for a Q&A session on the #boingboing IRC channel.