Friday, October 01, 2021

The Book You Have to Read:
“Running Dog,” by Don DeLillo

(Editor’s note: This is the 173rd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
The 1970s was an ambiguous time in America. Watergate and its concomitant scandals, the repudiation of the Vietnam War: these blurred the lines between good and evil; in some cases, erasing them altogether. The hope and spirituality that existed in the 1960s were squashed and replaced with conspiracy theories and paranoia. It was sometimes difficult to discern friend from foe, as sinister forces operated under the radar in a government gone feral. “It’s the nature of the times,” says one character in Running Dog (1978), Don DeLillo’s opaque thriller and sixth novel, who goes on to add, “You go to bed with your enemies.” More telling words were never spoken.

As this tale begins, a man in drag is found dead in Lower Manhattan. He happens to be the owner of “the century’s ultimate piece of decadence,” a home movie allegedly shot in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin bunker during the last days of the Third Reich, with the Führer in flagrante delicto. News that this film exists and is for sale lures a preposterous assemblage into the light: Richie Armbrister, the “boy wonder of smut”; Lloyd Percival, a United States senator who collects erotica; PAC/ORD, a rogue government agency attempting to thwart Percival’s investigation into its illegal operations (this one sounds familiar); a Canadian mobster spreading his tentacles into the United States; and Moll Robbins, investigative reporter for the radical Running Dog magazine, a has-been periodical “dying and in need of a fix.”

These players are united by Glen Selvy, a paramilitary operative (and Percival’s ostensible pornography scout), who has been planted in the Percival organization by Earl Mudger and the shadowy Lomax, masterminds of the fearsome Radical Matrix, a rogue offshoot of PAC/ORD, and a murky and highly profitable covert-operations-for-hire operation that conducts business on a scale that would make even a James Bond villain run for cover.

Events begin to run off the rails when Mudger and Lomax learn that Robbins is writing about Percival’s collection of erotica; such exposure could ruin their advantage in persuading him to drop his investigation. On top of that, Selvy has begun a sexual relationship with Robbins, and it’s only a matter of time before their lives converge in the crosshairs of Radical Matrix. Grace Delaney, Robbins’ boss at Running Dog, isn’t too keen on her writing her story, either. “Conspiracy’s our theme,” Delaney tells her, attempting to turn Robbins away from the erotica reporting and get her to focus instead on the big picture, which is the PAC/ORD investigation. Delaney is closer to the organization than Robbins could imagine, and she later proves that criminals and radical editors (it’s difficult to tell the difference between them in this book) make opportunistic and cynical bedfellows.

It doesn’t take much time for hit men to show up and for Selvy to leave town, on a hegira to a secret training complex out west where he began his life as a covert operative. Upon arriving at his destination, this shadow of a man realizes what he’s really been trained to do all along, his violent fate finally catching up with him.

The humor is dark here, DeLillo eviscerating a rudderless United States of America as it attempts to make its way through the spiritual malaise of the ’70s. It’s every person for themselves as allegiances are made and broken without compunction—survival is the only thing that matters. The noir-tough dialogue is witty, heavy on innuendo, with tongues glib and incisive enough to approach Philip Marlowe level.

There are touches in Running Dog that seem like Junior Varsity literary devices, but they’re actually subtle incongruities which indicate two sides to every story, or perhaps more than one valid point of view; or maybe even that truth and perception can be confused—prompting the reader to take on the thought process of the book. For instance, Robbins borrows items of Selvy’s clothing; the two play tennis on a volleyball court; the owner of the porn film is a man dressed as a woman. And then there’s Lomax. Which is he—low, max, or a combination of the two? “Am I percipient,” readers might well ask themselves, “or am I only being paranoid?” If one is not paying attention, these subtle hints might be mistaken for fatuous filler.

Running Dog is not some star-spangled display of technology or weaponry; nor it is it a trench coat-clad analog chase. It’s a thinking person’s thriller and a reappraisal of a tenuous period in America. And that much-sought-after home movie—how can Hitler be any more horrible and decadent than what his career so plainly has shown? That would depend upon one’s definition of decadence, or who is being decadent: those appearing in the movie, or the viewers.

No comments: