National Book Award winners, part 22: 1975’s Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone.

26 Feb

(Wherein I read all the former National Book Award winners, so you don’t have to.) 

1.

In 1975, Robert Stone won the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers, his fantastic, fatalistic novel of a heroin deal gone bad.

Dog Soldiers follows Converse, a weary and self-pitying journalist in Vietnam. Converse is intelligent. Converse is a leftist. Converse is damaged and bored. Here he is, meeting an aging missionary he wants to sleep with in Saigon, right at the beginning of the novel:

Converse looked into her mild eyes.

Of course.

“You’re a missionary.”

“We don’t call ourselves that way. I suppose some people could.”

He nodded in sympathy. They never like the term. It suggested imperialism and being eaten.

Converse has chosen Vietnam, out of boredom, out of some unspoken dedication to bearing witness. He falls in with expatriates, drug addicts, bohemian travelers, and he realizes he’s made a mistake. Here he is, remembering his first time at a battle:

And, surely enough, the difficulties he had been experiencing with reality were obviated. One bright afternoon, near a place called Krek, Converse had watched with astonishment as the world of things transformed itself into a single overwhelming act of murder. In a manner of speaking, he had discovered himself. Himself was a soft shell-less quivering thing encased in a hundred and sixty pounds of pink sweating meat. It was real enough. It tried to burrow into the earth. It wept.

Converse, out of the horror of his experiences, gives in to the temptation of easy money. He arranges to smuggle a giant shipment of heroin into the U.S. His vehicle is an old acquaintance, Hicks, a disturbed and psychopathic former marine. Hicks is going to carry the heroin to Converse’s wife, Marge, in San Francisco. One of the many wrinkles in his plan is their little daughter, Janey.

Things fall apart. And man, in Stone’s novel, they really fall apart. There’s a ripoff. Hicks and Marge take off on a desperate escape, cooking up every chance they get, pursued by murderous government operatives. Hicks and Marge retreat to a mountainous bunker of a Timothy Leary type named Dieter.

Dieter is Colonel Kurtz, reformed; before the novel begins, he was the head of a LSD cult and thought he was a god. He has turned his back on the violence and seediness and power politics of the world, instead focusing inward with psylocilbin. Converse falls in with the pursuers, and they all end up in a standoff around Dieter’s compound. Heavy ordinance, consciousness enhancing hallucinogens, and a very surreal landscape set the final climactic scenes.

The characters all seem magnified versions of real world types, punched through with a skewered, otherworldly sheen. The characters radiate. They creep around at the edges of the story. You can seem them lurking in other books. What makes them crackle is the dialogue. The characters all speak with a druggy patois of the street-level criminal, augmented by a stoner philosophy and little snippets of eastern mysticism. Most of them are full of shit. They’re armed, money-hungry urchins looking for a bigger bite of the pie.

Stone pulls off a deft trick; the book is somehow a pulp thriller of the lowest order and a work of uncompromising high art. The key is the language, electric, eccentric, yet also elegant and spare. The whole book is quotable, filled with the tautological aphorisms of the junky culture. The logic of the novel is inescapable and merciless. Only the insane can emerge unscathed.

Here’s Stone describing Marge as she waits for the heroin to arrive:

And the dreams, one after another, were bad stuff indeed. Janey teetering on the ledge with a storm-gray New York cityscape behind her, water towers, sooty brick. Something about a mad friar and fruit with blood on it. Something terrible among trees. Each dream incorporated her headache.

Afoot, she was edgy, cramped, accident prone. Coffee burned. A saucer broke. There were two caps of dilaudid left to her but she took some Percodan instead.

Lean, taut, angry writing, that. Right out of the American crime tradition.

A fabulous novel in the literary crime subgenre; I love this book.

A fabulous novel in the literary crime subgenre; I love this book.

2.

James Cain had life in his novels, corrupted and often obscene, true, but life nonetheless. Chandler and Hammett—both great writers—veer closer to a tough guy parody. Everyone’s a killer. Everyone talks fast, in a string of double entendres. Crime fiction has built into it a parodic edge; it’s so easy to veer into cliché. You have the philosopher-killer on one extreme, and the stumblebum sex addict on the other. Most crime fiction falls somewhere in-between.

Stone fits somewhere at the far edge of the crime fiction spectrum. He belongs to that rarest of subgenres, the literary crime writer. And Dog Soldiers is one of the best of its kind, a magnificent novel that stands alongside John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig; Don DeLillo’s Running Dog; Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men; and Denis Johnson’s Angels and Tree of Smoke among others. These novels carry a special inner gravity. The narratives often collapse, implode, reform like newborn stars after the big bang.

Hawkes is collapsing post-modernism; DeLillo is paranoia run amok; McCarthy is violent stoicism as rugged individuality; And Johnson is zen drugginess and people corrupted by decadent decay.

Stone is of a piece with Johnson. They have similar themes, a similar style. They write extreme fictions, straddling the line between pulp and art. They both are intrigued by religion, eastern philosophy, unemotional violence. They have a genre all their own, something akin to Ginsberg and Burroughs shooting at each other in a samurai movie. After they’ve both overdosed on LSD.

This strand of American fiction contains everything from Fat City[1] to the films of Quentin Tarantino and onward down to True Detective. Fantastical noir. There’s a ringing nightmare at the edges of it. Something dark is slouching towards the reader. The metaphorical overlay isn’t clear. If film noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus German expressionism, then Dog Soldiers is all of this plus the Beats, the yippies, the hippies and the Grateful Dead, plus Charles Manson and Richard Nixon waving pistols in each other’s faces. And both of them are naked.

There is a caveat. Stone’s fatalistic stoicism will bore some readers, strike others as wearying. Every character seems to accept his/her fate with a cynical acceptance; it doesn’t always ring true. And there isn’t much life in some of the characters. They operate as ciphers for a lost age.

Stone remains an interesting writer, although he never quite replicated the charging power of this, his best and most remarkable novel. I read most of his work—including his pretty good autobiography—after reading Dog Soldiers some twelve years ago.

3.

Of course Stone is after bigger game. He’s addressing the spiritual void in our decadent, morally bankrupt and a-religious age. Altered states, casual violence—these are rational responses to an insane world. His crime story isn’t just about Converse and Hicks and Marge; it’s also about the plight of Americans in the age of American domination.

Which brings us to Vietnam. Stone grapples with U.S. involvement on multiple levels, alluding to massacres, lost innocence. Somehow, the book’s final firefight—somewhere near the Mexican border of California—captures the horrors of Vietnam better than most novels set there.

Novels about Vietnam are multitudinous. The best of these are probably The Forever War[1], Meditations in Green, The Quiet American, Tree of Smoke, Dispatches (not a novel but reads like one) or anything by Tim O’Brien. Dog Soldiers captures the rot of it, the moral lassitude of American involvement, the spiritual cost.

Converse is intelligent, but exhausted, apathetic, and lazy. Hicks is inexhaustible, irrepressible and crafty, but also vengeful, murderous and psychopathic. They operate at a metaphorical level: these two men are America.

4.

1974 was a good year for American fiction.

Philip K. Dick published his melancholic paean to police-state paranoia, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Joseph Heller released Something Happened[2]. Stephen King published Carrie, his first, and arguably only experimental novel. Ishmael Reed released The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Robert Pirsig published his hugely influential Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Toni Morrison released Sula. Philip Roth published My Life as a Man.

Dog Soldiers is the best of the lot, an American classic of the highest order, not only one of the best novels from the 1970s[3], but also perhaps the best novel about the 1970s, replete with drugs, Vietnam, disillusionment, urban decay, even a porn theatre. Dog Soldiers is the Age of Aquarius turned sour. This narco-noir classic belongs on any best-of American fiction list.

 

 


 

[1] A great novel.

[2] Reportedly, Heller’s second best novel, but I couldn’t get through it.

[3] I kept seeing those great seventies films—Taxi Driver; Three Days of the Condor; Klute; The Conversation; Charley Varrick, among others—playing out in these pages.

 

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