Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

In the course of being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse experienced several thoughts; 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 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.

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.

Sorry for the long excerpt, hope you made it through unscathed. I just think that it's a passage of great power and insight, and it encapsulates perfectly what this book is about: the dissolution of life as a moral force, the transformative effects of war, and incorrigible cowardice.

Dog Soldiers opens up on the mid-Seventies, pissing on the era's grave. As the Vietnam War fades into irrelevance, so does the Bohemian ideal that pressed against it, leaving behind a skeleton of impotence and junkieism. John Converse, a journalist languishing in boredom in Vietnam, decides to engineer the transit and sale of three kilos of heroin to the United States, asking his friend Merchant Marine Ray Hicks to courier it to his wife Marge in San Francisco. The deal comes under the eye of a murderous regulatory official who wants the heroin for himself, and sets off a lengthy chase in which Hicks runs off with Marge and the corrupt Feds force Converse to help them pursue the drugs.

I am reminded of the way Odysseus struggles with his return from Troy, having to leave behind the madness of war before he can be permitted to return home to Ithaca. In the same way Stone's America has descended into ruin as the Vietnam War has become irrelevant; Converse notes that things make much less sense in the States than they do in Vietnam. In a desperate attempt to sell off the heroin, Ray and Marge encounter a number of warped hippie sterotypes, like the spiritualist roshi who lives on a distant mountaintop who has long since entropied into being little more than a drug dealer. Even Ray himself, a devotee of Eastern philosophy, is deranged and murderous.

There is a big hole here for me, and that is why exactly the corrupt Feds want the heroin so badly that they spend such effort tracking down Marge and Hicks. I suppose that three kilos of heroin would go for quite a bit, but the effort--and the ruthlessness--seem out of proportion (This Slate article gives a pretty good picture of what it might be worth--$300,000-$525,000 in today's dollars). But then again, Dog Soldiers is about madness, and their pursuit is doggedly fanatical. Stone also has a tendency to write around immediate action and fuzzy up the plot, encouraging confusion in anything but the most careful reader, so I may have missed something.

Still, I must admit great affection for this book. The writing is aggressively brusque, and when it takes a step back from the action can show a lot of wisdom written plainly--like in the excerpt above. It's the kind of book I adore: eventful without being vapid, colorful without being quirky, visceral and suspenseful. Highly recommended.


Nihil Novum said...

I find it offensive that soldiers are compared to dogs.

crys said...

They aren't necessarily comparing soldiers to dogs. An early definition of the word 'dogfight' meant an aerial battle between two or more aircrafts. So the term dog soliders refers to a particular sect of soliders who fought war in the skies, the pilots.

Chiara said...

No, this is incorrect.

"Dog Soldiers" were the most valiant warriors of the Cheyenne. They stayed behind after EVERYONE, even the other warriors had shipped out, to battle to death. They were mighty and revered. It is an honor to be called a dog soldier, not offensive.

The novel's title, and the excerpt, have nothing to do with pilot fighters, the the history of "dogfight" is interesting.

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Anonymous said...

Got paid out on Monday
Not a dog soljer no more
They gimme all that money
So much my pockets is sore
More dough than I can use. Re-enlistment Blues.

- from James Jones' "From Here to Eternity," set in pre-World War II Hawaii.

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