Friday, July 28, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“Dog Soldiers,” by Robert Stone

(Editor’s note: This is the 149th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers is not your basic wham-bam-thanks-Uncle Sam adventure novel of dope smuggling during the Vietnam War era. It was Stone’s second book (following 1966’s A Hall of Mirrors), and at the time of its debut in 1974, his name was not familiar to many mainstream readers; so, at first glance, those looking for a thrill might have mistaken it for beach fare. But that impression is immediately dispelled: This novel is the finest sort of literature of the most accessible kind. At front and center in Dog Soldiers is the pervasive corruption and nihilism bred by the lengthy Vietnam War, which led men to lose both their better judgment and their humanity.

John Converse, a once-promising playwright, is now “a journalist of sorts,” who writes for his old-school lefty father-in-law’s sensational crime tabloids. His wife, Marge, is the boss’ daughter. She works in the box office of a San Francisco porn theater. With that seemingly innocuous detail, Stone’s brilliant and ubiquitous, so-in-your-face-you-might-not-see-it aplomb transforms the 1960s mantra of “make love, not war” into a sleazy commodity. As for Converse—recently credentialed as a press correspondent in Vietnam—coping with life in that increasingly unprincipled and war-torn country teaches him to override his “moral objections” to the manifest brutality with crude sophistry. Once this simple survival trick has been mastered, Converse finds that anything is possible, such as attempting to seduce an elderly missionary in Saigon—or smuggling heroin back to the States. In the crucible of Southeast Asia, “where everybody finds out who they are,” very few people like what they see in the mirror. However, none of them have a plan better than to keep on truckin’.

The long, strange trip John Converse makes from mediocre reporter to drug trafficker is born of a “desperate emptiness” and the guilt he feels at having nothing much to show for his 18 months covering a war. He recruits his ex-Marine Corps pal, Ray Hicks (“Self-defense is an art I cultivate”), as the courier. A Nietzsche enthusiast, Hicks fancies himself as a kind of Zen warrior. Needing “a little adrenaline to clean the blood,” he agrees to help ship Converse’s three kilos of pure heroin off to America’s West Coast and put them into Marge’s hands.

As might have been expected, though, this scheme was fixed from the beginning, and before the drugs can be delivered, a botched rip-off occurs, perpetrated by a couple of sociopaths posing as cops in the employ of a corrupt federal agent named Antheil. With no strategy in mind for the dope’s disposal, but wanting to keep it safe from thieves, Hicks strains for divine clarity and guidance as he stands on feet of clay. “In the end,” he muses, “there were not many things worth wanting—for the serious man, the samurai. But there were still some. In the end, if the serious man is still bound to illusion, he selects the worthiest illusion and takes a stand.”

Sounds like a plan. Except that when criminals with badges and waning patience zero in, Hicks—now on the run, with Marge taken along for the ride—has nowhere to go except to the New Mexico mountaintop retreat of his buddy Dieter Bechstein. Back when Hicks was a “natural man of Zen,” he and others spent time with Dieter in search of an elevated consciousness, only to have their ideals polluted by drugs. Such a turn was not so uncommon during the ’60s. Like any good bargain hunter, people such as English writer Aldous Huxley, American psychologist Timothy Leary, and novelist Ken Kesey—on whom the character of Dieter is based—sought a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment through LSD and other hallucinogens. Unfortunately, they soon realized the folly of their ways, and it was all downhill from there. Waiting at the bottom for some of the crestfallen believers was the Frankenstein’s monster of heroin.

Robert Stone’s bona fides as player/qualified observer at the birth of the 1960s’ psychedelic scene is well-documented. Together with Kesey, he was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University’s creative-writing program, and his involvement with the scene was memorialized by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In fact, Stone’s counterculture street cred is so solid, that when Kesey and his Merry Pranksters took their legendary bus trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, the group swung by Stone’s upper Manhattan apartment just to say “hi!” (Anyone interested in learning more about Robert Stone, or reading about the ’60s as remembered by one of America’s leading novelists, should read his 2007 book, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties.)

But back to Dog Soldiers

When Converse himself returns stateside, he is kidnapped by the two pursuing sociopaths, who use him as bait in hopes of convincing Marge to hand over the drugs. But Hicks will have none it, and by this point in the journey, Marge has become a heroin addict, so she’s not giving up the goods either. The clock is ticking on the dope, and the crooked fed, Antheil, has little time to storm the partners’ stronghold before this all becomes an official police operation. Stone makes clear that Antheil has found a very worthy opponent in Ray Hicks. As Dieter says of the former Marine: “Whatever he believed in he had to embody absolutely.” Take that to mean anyone attempting to come up against Hicks will have their work cut out for them, as the crooked cops and federal agents soon realize. At this book’s finale, it’s unclear who won. The line between the good guys and the bad guys no longer exists.

As an adventure writer, Stone—who died in 2015—is a modern master, not even comparable to Ernest Hemingway (who was primarily a short-story writer, and thus most concerned with climactic moments). The back-stories of his characters are interwoven into the evolving narrative so invisibly, that they support rather than ornament. This is particularly clear in the case of Danskin, a guy who holds Converse hostage and pursues Hicks, and who relates his criminal and psychological history with a Stonesque spin on “the inmates are running the asylum.” Danskin, we’re told, is just as at home in a mental institution as in the outside world, because it “was dope and politics in that place, just like outside.” Differences between the two are equally hard to find in Stone’s yarn.

A movie adaptation of Dog Soldiers, retitled Who'll Stop the Rain and starring Nick Nolte, was released in 1978. As a thriller it cuts the mustard, yet it leaves the heavy messages on the cutting-room floor, instead emphasizing this story’s chase elements. By all means, go see the film. But first read Stone’s novel, in which dope—and the money it brings—is a more potent defoliant to “flower power” hopes than Agent Orange ever was. Dog Soldiers is no bum-trip; it’s a tour de force. Stone’s prose carries freight with ease and wit; and without a doubt, this tale represents the most fitting Viking funeral of the 1960s ever written. No one makes this clearer than the skag-addicted Marge, who at one point disparages Dieter’s spirit and goodness thusly: “Please don’t give me hippie sermons, Mr. Natural. I’m not part of your parish.” The sad fact of the matter is that in Dog Soldiers, out of the ashes of good intentions come decadence and evil.


George said...

DOG SOLDIERS was Robert Stone's best book.

Mathew Paust said...

Stone was sadly underappreciated by the literati, but his writing opened doors in my head I'd not known were there. My favorite was A Flag for Sunrise.

Unknown said...

Big influency on my own books. Sent a copy of Crystal Falls to him before e died.