BY ARTHUR McCULLOCH

This book has been chosen as a Great Read

Author: Robert Stone

Houghton Mifflin, 1974

Filed Under Literary

Dog Soldiers is a hell-ride full of tension and terror that carries the reader into the wildly unpredictable and dangerous world of drug trafficking in the 1970’s. Two amateurs, John Converse, a fear-wracked journalist who volunteered to go to Vietnam for “writing material”, and his disturbed wife, Marge, concoct a half-assed plan to smuggle three kilos of pure heroin from Vietnam to the U.S. Oblivious to the dangers involved, they quickly discover they have been set up by their source in Vietnam and are being pursued by a corrupt federal agent.

The novel opens in a bizarre and dangerous Vietnam, eerily similar to Graham Greene’s depiction in The Quiet American. Where Greene’s journalist protagonist is callous and cynical, Converse is numbed and morally depleted by the horror he’s witnessed. Even though he isn’t  normally driven by greed, his justification for getting involved in drug trafficking is: why not, everyone else is doing it. Haunted by the threat of discovery, Converse must mule the heroin to his partner, Hicks, a man Converse considers to be psychotic.

No matter how bizarre Vietnam is portrayed, both the reader and Converse are delivered a warning by Hicks that the U.S. is an even “funnier” place. Stone does an excellent job of conveying to the reader that  it would almost be impossible for the U.S. to be any more lethal or strange than the Vietnam this book occupies, a place where death awaits those who “look unlucky.” Although the reader is tipped off to this threat, Converse remains heedless. We soon learn that Hicks was right, and that Converse is in over his head.

Even Hicks, a tough, former cultist and pusher in L.A. with a violent past, is not prepared for the heat that comes from smuggling the heroin and cutting into the business of the established crime syndicates. When he meets up with Marge to deliver the heroin they are assaulted by two ex-cons, a strung-out “pogue” and an ill-tempered psychopath who work for a corrupt federal agent. Refusing to turn over the heroin, Hicks fights with the attackers and escapes with Marge. This triggers the rest of the novel: a wild, bloody chase for the heroin.

Converse is captured and tortured by the same people who attacked Hicks and Marge and he is eventually coerced into assisting his torturers track them down. A once promising writer who met with commercial success for a published play, Converse travels to Vietnam to gather experience he can write from. However, he’s traumatized and numbed by his experiences there and becomes one scared “funny little fucker”.

Fear was extremely important to Converse; morally speaking it was the basis of his life.  It was the medium through which he perceived his own soul, the formula through which he could confirm his own existence.  I am afraid, Converse reasoned, therefore I am.

Marge is a drug addict whose latest interest is dilaudid, until she discovers heroin. She’s overwhelmed by her circumstances and cedes all control to Hicks, often to disastrous consequence. Stone does an excellent job of giving the characters enough rope to hang themselves. Marge and Hicks are given ample opportunities to rid themselves of the heroin and walk away. Each time they refuse.

Dog Soldiers is delivered in the third person and shifts perspectives among the principal players. All of the characters are wonderfully complex, disturbed, and caught in troubling relationships. They are are often at odds with one another, or at the very least, there is an overwhelming feeling of unease, which Stone expertly transfers to the reader. Danskin and Smitty, the ex-cons hunting Marge, share an abusive sexual relationship, and neither of them completely trust the corrupt federal agent employing them. Marge surrenders her will to her enabler, Hicks, and they too enter a sexual relationship. Converse is troubled by the strained fidelity between he and his wife and lives in fear that inevitably his captors will execute him.

Ironically, Marge becomes the voice of reason. Her interjections and understanding are quite funny and add some levity in the face of extreme tension. However, she is often shouted down by the other characters; numbed by the violence surrounding her; susceptible to her own rationalization or despair; or anesthetizing herself with drugs. She does not represent the only source of humor in Dog Soldiers, Stone imbues the narrator and each of his characters with the ability to create humor in the face of horrible circumstances.

There is plenty ot tension to catapult the reader through the novel. The reader simply does not know what is going to come next, or when the next outbreak of violence will occur. Due to  an argument or a physical attack the reader is never afforded a comfort zone as the characters interact and the plot lines intersect. Even when you might suspect a certain outcome, Stone escalates the tension through careful pacing until something  explodes.

Dog Soldiers is a frightening novel that captures an important time period in America’s history. While certainly a product of an era, the forces of greed, war, and drugs at work on the human spirit of the individuals in Stone’s novel are no less prevalent today. The conclusion of Dog Soldiers is harrowing, and the modern reader cannot help but find it as an unsettling harbinger of things to come. It won the National Book Award in 1975.

Similar Books: The Quiet American, Graham Greene; Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad.

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