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Aug022009

1975

Dog Soldiers

By Robert Stone

Original Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Current Publisher: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jessica Hagedorn writes:

Dog Soldiers resonated with me in a powerful way when I originally read it years ago. Maybe it had to do with being a lapsed Catholic, hybrid Filipino who grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the Sixties and Seventies. Maybe it had to do with having a brother who went crazy and never recovered from the Vietnam War. Maybe it had to do with all of the above, plus the fact that Robert Stone is a brilliant writer.

What a joy it was to reread this book. Dog Soldiers stands the test of time and remains one of Stone’s best—a taut, electrifying novel about the ravages of the Vietnam War and the crash-and-burn Seventies in the U.S. At 342 fast-paced pages, its reach and vision are epic. Grunts, whores, druggies of all kinds, religious proselytizers, weary merchants of porn, wise children, Mexican cops, blissed-out gurus, Hollywood poseurs and vicious federal agents make up the astonishing cast of characters. The dialogue is priceless and the humor wicked. Early in the novel, a character named Sergeant Janeway says, “Everyday in this place, we entertain the weird, the strange, the unusual.” In these trippy opening scenes set in Vietnam, you can see Stone’s influence on Denis Johnson’s Tree Of Smoke, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction.

Stone is the master of creating an ominous atmosphere of exquisite paranoia and apocalyptic dread. The jittery, ominous mood pervades throughout Dog Soldiers, with plenty of heroin to keep you company. There’s also plenty of speed, grass, psilocybin, dilaudid and just about everything else to zonk and zap you out. Segue to that interesting comic book verb, zap. The Great Elephant Zap provides one of the book’s unforgettable little moments. On the surface, the slaughter of elephants by U.S. military forces may not be directly connected to a drug-addled planet, but the insanity behind the killing is absolutely, cosmically linked. Writing from the point of view of John Converse, a cynical, smalltime journalist in Saigon who is attempting to rationalize his decision to smuggle a shitload of deadly heroin back to his unsuspecting wife in California, Stone writes:

“The last moral objection that Converse experienced in the traditional manner had been his reaction to the great Elephant Zap of the previous year. That winter, the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam, had decided that elephants were enemy agents because the NVA used them to carry things, and there had ensued a scene worthy of the Ramayana. Many-armed, hundred-headed MACV had sent forth steel-bodied flying insects to destroy his enemies, the elephants. All over the country, whooping sweating gunners descended from the cloud cover to stampede the herds and mow them down with 7.62-millimeter machine guns...The Great Elephant Zap had been too much and had disgusted everyone. Even the chopper crews who remember the day as one of insane exhilaration had been somewhat appalled. There was a feeling that there were limits...And as for dope, Converse thought, and addicts—if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.”

John Converse is the first one we meet of the novel’s unholy trio of central characters. Converse is a fascinating and loathsome creature—cowardly and vain, arrogant, too smart for his own good. His old buddy, Ray Hicks, is the fallen angel and wayward samurai. You might even call him a hero of sorts, the savior of lost women and children. Then again, Hicks also ends up killing people. When Hicks agrees to smuggle the heroin back for Converse, he sets the novel’s chain of bad karma events in motion.

Marge Converse, John’s wife, is the third member of Stone’s disillusioned trio. Marge plays the classic role of “bad” mother. Though she clearly loves her young daughter, Marge can’t help being reckless and self-destructive. Like her husband, she is too smart and impulsive for her own good. A stone cold junkie by novel’s end, Marge pays a huge price for her sins. But unlike her foolish husband, Marge takes the heat and is never self-pitying.

The women of Stone’s novels are as deep and wild and wounded as his men, giving as good as they get. Marge is one of Stone’s strongest female characters. Her scenes with Ray Hicks generate many of the most beautifully written passages in Dog Soldiers. Sex between Marge Converse and Ray Hicks is well, sexy. It is also strangely spiritual and—here goes the old Catholic in me—tragic as hell.

It was strange to see such a smart, intriguing wreck of a woman like Marge reduced to a whiney, petulant victim in the Hollywood version of the novel. Like other National Book Award-winning novels that were made into movies, Dog Soldiers didn’t fare well on the big screen. It was released in 1978 with the perplexing title, Who’ll Stop the Rain? In spite of the timely material and a strong cast featuring Nick Nolte (as Ray Hicks), the movie stank. I watched it again recently on Netflix, hoping I was wrong the first time around. There are one or two moments, but the movie still stinks. So don’t bother. Read the great, thrilling novel instead.

Jessica Hagedorn is the author of Dogeaters, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1990.

 

Jonathan Lethem writes:

Robert Stone’s second novel, after announcing himself (and winning the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award) with the Algren-esque bad-trip picaresque of A Hall of Mirrors, was a ruthless diagnosis of the Vietnamization of the homeland. The book works as a bait-and-switch: set first in Vietnam, Dog Soldiers reverts to Berkeley, Los Angeles, and SoCal Desert milieu that inevitably recalls Charles Manson’s, yet never for an instant do the characters succeed in leaving the war behind. Browsing amid porn theaters, ‘Hippie’ cops à la Serpico, tabloid newspapers (“Housewife Impaled By Skydiving Rapist”), drug culture, and—most presciently for the U.S.A. we know today—prison culture, the book surveys both Joan Didion’s and Tim O’Brien’s nightmares and concludes that The Two Are One.

Yet for all that it is topical to Vietnam and the counterculture, to that moment when the early ‘70s became the receptacle for all that had curdled out of the ‘60s, Dog Soldiers is also a mercilessly doomy, and timeless, crime novel. Particularly as it concerns Danskin, one of American fiction’s greatest psychopaths, Dog Soldiers comes as near as the National Book Award’s ever gotten to the domain of someone like Jim Thomson or Charles Willeford.

And then there is the sheer fried density of the language, where clots of military and druggie jargon and early-70s pseudo-philosophy ooze through Stone’s tight, clean, driven voice, which derives, it seems to me, from Hemingway, from the Faulkner of “The Bear,” and from Graham Greene, and which ought to speak to any fan of Don DeLillo or Denis Johnson. Stone’s certainly as much a master as Greene of the intentional Pathetic Fallacy, in which the natural environment or world of inanimate objects is made to throb with the psychological matter of the humans moving through it. Check this out:

“In the course of being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse experienced several insights; he did not welcome them although they came as no surprise.
One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death. Existence was a trap; the testy patience of things as they are might be exhausted at any moment.
Another was that in the single moment when the breathing world had hurled itself screeching and murderous at his throat, he had recognized the absolute correctness of its move. In those seconds, it seemed absurd that he had ever been allowed to go his foolish way, pursuing notions and small joys. He was ashamed of the casual arrogance with which he had presumed to scurry about creation. From the bottom of his heart, he concurred in the moral necessity of his annihilation.”

A great American masterpiece.

Jonathan Lethem's eighth novel, Chronic City,will be published in October. He was a National Book Awards fiction judge in 2006.

 

Craig Nova writes:

Of all working writers, Robert Stone is the one who is best able to invoke the American heart of darkness, and to do so in a way that is as graceful as a river and just about as unstoppable. No one, and I mean no one, can come close to the legacy of Joseph Conrad as Robert Stone, and, in fact, given the nature of the modern era, Stone’s triumph is to work out of this tradition and to expand it. After all, everything in the modern world seeks to diminish the scale with which we see human beings, but In Dog Soldiers, and in other books, Stone looks into the darkness where his characters exist, but no matter how much in the dark they are, they all seem important. And these characters seem important because they are large.

Dog Soldiers has another quality that is hard to describe, but is at the heart of why this book is still so alive. This quality, I think, has something to do with its voice, which is at once seemingly cool, but yet profoundly engaged. Or, perhaps, it is best to say that the voice knows how to leave room for the reader to enter this world.

Good, if not great novelists do a particular thing, which is to allow the reader to feel the loneliness of a book’s characters, since if you can feel a character’s loneliness, you can feel the character. Here, in Dog Soldiers, the characters have this quality in a way that is so strong, so real as to seem as though they are part of the reader’s experience.

The book is also a perfect realization of a period in American life, particularly for people who thought, at one point, that the promise of the sixties was all benign, but here the price of all that light and hope is being paid back in darkness, in greed, and, as Conrad would say, folly.

Dark, dramatic, with a plot that is mesmerizing, the book lives as a testament to modern character, as a keen, true vision, and, more than anything else, it leaves me with the profound sensation of a voice that can be trusted. Dog Soldiers goes about its business with a quiet precision that has a neural hiss to it, as though the author knows precisely how to use language that is going to be played, like a score, in the reader’s mind. One of the best books, in the English language, of the last hundred years.

Craig Nova was a National Book Awards judge in 2006.Craig's latest book, The Informer, will be published January 2010.


Edward Porter writes:

No one should be able to pull off what Robert Stone pulls off in Dog Soldiers. It's the story of a heroin deal gone south, complete with guns, violent death, and bad guys—terrifying, weird, convincing bad guys. The prose is as wry and tough as that of any noir master's, filled with lines like, "So you're what Converse is married to," and "A sense of unreality is not a legal defense." Yet Dog Soldiers is unequivocally a piece of high art, whose breadth of reference ranges from Ulysses to Simon de Montfort, whose story is whipped onward not by plot, but by the urgent need of its characters to locate meaning in a world filled with Charlie Mansons and My Lais. It's a social document of Vietnam's blowback, a parable of a nation lost in drugs, violence, and self-delusion, and at a deeper level, a committed meditation on the nature of action and attachment—a disturbing and cathartic riff on the Bhagavad Gita, told by Dashiell Hammett on an acid trip. Did I also mention that it's funny as hell?

Anyone reading Prime Green, Stone's memoir of the Sixties, will see the raw material: his drug-riddled travels with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, and the Merry Pranksters, his hitch as a journalist in Vietnam, his days as a tabloid writer ("MAD DENTIST YANKS GIRL'S TONGUE"). Yet the magic lies in the alchemy, not the base metal. Dog Soldiers has none of the sprawl of memoir: in its sense of purpose it resembles nothing so much as a bullet. One tour de force scene follows another relentlessly, some splashy, some quiet, each brilliantly conceived and executed. Take the novel's slow, ominous, ingeniously triangulated opening, in which Converse sits on a park bench in Saigon, alternately reading his wife Marge's freaked-out letter from home, and trying to pick up an older woman who turns out to be a far darker presence than he bargained for. Or check out the stunning phantasmagoria in the mind of the damaged Ray Hicks, Stone's Zen student, Nietzsche-reading, ex-Marine anti-hero, as he walks along railroad tracks in the desert, carrying weight in every sense imaginable.

Dog Soldiers combines depth beyond any thriller, with a sense of momentum that few literary novels attempt. It asks, given that life is what it is, how should we act? No answers are offered, but the passion play of Converse, Marge, and Ray trying to cope with the question lingers in the mind and the senses long after the book is finished.

Edward Porter's story "The Changing Station" will appear this fall in the anthology Best New American Voices.

Tim Weiner writes:

I read Dog Soldiers when I was 18, and it made me want to write for a living. That debt of gratitude can’t be paid, except to say here that Stone is, for my money, the best American novelist of his generation, and Dog Soldiers the Heart of Darkness of the Vietnam War.

No novel of its time matches its intensity and verisimilitude. None conveys the sense of a fallen world with such force. None does so with such a sense of humor. None conveys the tragedy of those who seek, as Stone has written elsewhere, “constant grace under constant pressure.”

The story is straightforward: a hack named John Converse brings the war home from Saigon in the form of three kilos of heroin. His reasons are greed and fear and an epiphany brought on by being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force:

He concurred in the moral necessity of his annihilation.

He had lain there —a funny little fucker —a little stingless quiver on the earth. That was all there was of him, and all there had ever been... He was the celebrated living dog, preferred over dead lions.

Converse convinces an old friend from the Merchant Marine, Ray Hicks, to ferry the package to Converse’s wife, Marge, back home in Berkeley, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Bad juju.

Hicks remarks in passing, early in the book, apropos Vietnam: “What a bummer for the gooks.” The bummer comes ashore. The deal goes down very badly. The dope heads south through Los Angeles on a terrifying trip toward the Valley of Death, pursued by bent narcs, bogus messiahs, zigzag wanderers, Laurel Canyon dirtbags, and our unsound protagonists. I’ve reduced Dog Soldiers to a detective story here. It’s closer to the Book of Job. The dialogue is as good as writing gets; the denouement dark as they come.

Stone wrote novels as good and in many ways better than this later in life, and his recent memoir, Prime Green, is a delight (it also shows much of Dog Soldiers is distilled straight from Stone’s experience). But for its pure power and its political poetry, this was the best novel of the 1970s, and it puts Stone among the eternals.

Tim Weiner won the 2007 National Book Award for Nonfiction for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. A past winner of the Pulitzer Prizefor reporting on national security, he is working on a history of the FBI.

 

 

ISBN: 9780395860250

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Donald Barthelme for Guilty Pleasures
  • Gail Godwin for The Odd Woman
  • Joseph Heller for Something Happened
  • Toni Morrison for Sula
  • Vladimir Nabokov for Look at the Harlequins!
  • Grace Paley for Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
  • Philip Roth for My Life as a Man
  • Mark Smith for The Death of a Detective

Fiction Judges that Year: Stanley Elkin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Locke

The Year in Literature:

  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Eugenio Montale won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:  

  • Dog Soldiers was made into a film in 1978 called “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” Robert Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Judith Rascoe, and Nick Nolte played the lead role of Ray Hicks.

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