Dog Soldiers is a truly grim book, relentless in a way that makes other books claiming to look at the dark side of American life seem at least slightly deflecting or palliative in their final effect. Robert Stone’s publishers say he offers a “vision of our predicament,” but if that were true one could turn aside, call it just a vision and Stone a grouse, and that’s not the way it works. Dog Soldiers does not expose, or show, or put on a performance for readers. It is an absorbed realistic novel, telling a story, always working to get it told right, much closer to Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief in this respect than to Something Happened or Gravity’s Rainbow, which are “visions” of life that a reader can finally take or leave. As a result, one presumes, these books can be popular in a way that Dog Soldiers, homely and serious as wood, beautiful only in its integrity, will probably never be.
The setting is Vietnam and California, the time is the Sixties, but while Stone is hugely informed about the dreck of war and counterculture, he does not use that information to make it cohere, to hold it together in a vision. The facts just come, and usually they then just fall, with something like a thud. Here, early in the novel, the central figure, John Converse, is in a Saigon bar with a couple of Australians:
Both Jill and Converse had gone to see the invasion of Cambodia, and both had had experiences which had made them cry. But Converse’s tears had not been those of outraged human sensibility.
“You’re an entertaining fella,” Ian said. “But in general I object to your being around.”
Secure behind her porcelain smile, the waitress placed bowls of fish and rice before them. A party of American reporters came in, followed by four Filipino rock musicians with pachuco haircuts. The Honda salesmen and their Japanese girlfriends grew merrier as the sake flowed.
“I mean,” Ian said, “I love this country. It’s not the asshole of the world to me. I grew old here, man. Now when I leave, all I’ll be able to think back on is bastards like you in places like this.”
“Sometimes,” Jill said, “you act like you invented the country.”
“They’re a pack of perves,” Ian said. “You’re a pack of perves. Why don’t you go watch some other place die? They’ve got corpses by the river-full in Bangla Desh. Why not go there?”
“It’s dry,” Converse said.
Flat writing, not without pressure, but the pressure is being applied not to make a Vietnam or an Ugly American but to make a scene. Bring Ian into focus quickly, since he won’t be around long, let Converse drift and not mind being called a bastard, since he is drifting, and maybe he is a bastard.
When the central character is drifting, the tendency is for the author to become a tourist guide and the character a picaro; that never happens in Dog Soldiers. Stone seems to have realized, here more than in his first novel A Hall of Mirrors, that he wanted to see the lives of his main characters as having shapes, for all that they seem to have none, and to use plot as his major means of articulating those shapes. Page by page John Converse, his wife Marge, and his partner Hicks live dully and painfully, and they assume and hate their circumstances much more than they observe or understand them. Thus, shortly after the passage quoted above, Converse, Ian, and Jill see a bomb ravage the bar, watch the scurrying around and away, feel their efforts to condemn and to pity the victims. But Converse then leaves Saigon, goes to My Lat to meet Hicks and arrange the smuggling of three pounds of heroin back to the States; the incident in Saigon has disappeared. Before this scene he has gotten high with a schemer named Charmian, and before that, at the beginning of the novel, he has sat on a park bench talking briefly with a missionary who is returning to the States following the death of her husband. Before that, we presume, Converse had been to Cambodia, and had cried, but not tears of outraged human sensibility.
The events bear no visible connection with one another and they thus seem to express Converse’s inability to understand his life. But Stone will not absolve Converse, let him leave his past behind or his present free of whatever consequences attend his choices, however small or meaningless those choices may seem. We come to see that for all his wandering, he is also what Stone cares about, and so we will not see him become a vehicle for some vision about the American presence in South-east Asia. So too with the others. When Stone turns to Hicks, with his heroin stash in San Francisco, he works with the same low level intentness with which he has created Converse, who has called Hicks a psychopath. Converse may be right but even psychopaths must get off boats, go to bars, get drunk, plan their tomorrows. We pick up Marge, and she is popping pills and working in a porn theater and worrying about her daughter and whether the plan to sell the heroin will work.
It’s not daily life in the usual sense we are considering, because these lives have no habits or direction; still, it is only the moment-to-moment experience in which Stone is interested. Even people who have no characters have lives. Stone cannot love his characters, or urge us in any way to admire them, because they are not lovable or admirable. But they count, he keeps insisting, which is why the book is so grim. How much easier it would be to think they don’t matter.
Slowly the plot is allowed to take shape. Whatever these three have been, they have never been involved in heroin peddling before, and that becomes decisive in ways they can only fall into recognizing. Some “regulatory agents” who may be federal narcs get onto the trail of Hicks and Marge and force them to flee; they also locate Converse soon after he returns and beat him up pretty badly. Where’s the stuff? they ask; Converse, who knows only that Hicks and Marge aren’t where he thought they’d be, sees he is in some terrible trouble because what had seemed just a deal like other deals in Vietnam has gone wrong. We know that Hicks and Marge are by this time in Los Angeles, looking for someone they can peddle the dope to, inching themselves closer to doing up on the stuff because life has become dangerous and they can’t handle it. Converse, back north, glimpses only bits of this, yet his is the life that comes into fullest possible focus first.
Converse is doing no more than talking to a speed-addled stewardess who might know where his wife or daughter are. They begin to get high, to fall into sex, and then, when she calls him a “funny little fucker,” he backs off, suddenly remembering the scene he had witnessed in Cambodia, and why he had cried. He quickly leaves the stewardess, and relives his insights on seeing Cambodians bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force:
One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed towards nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death…. 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 ever 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.
This may be Converse’s ultimate vision, and, as Stone’s prose rises to its sternest heights, we see it may well be Stone’s too. What’s best, though, is Stone’s sense of timing, so that the insight forced upon Converse in Cambodia is also forced upon him later because he continued to pursue his foolish way, his small joys, with casual arrogance, so that he now is a hunted heroin peddler.
People passed him and he avoided their eyes. His desire to live was unendurable. It was impossible, not to be borne.
He was the celebrated living dog, preferred over dead lions.
Around him was the moronic lobby and outside the box-sided street where people hunted each other. Take it or leave it.
I’ll take it, he thought. To take it was to begin again from no-where, the funny little fucker would have to soldier on.
Living dogs lived. It was all they knew.
Converse won’t mess with the reasons he has gotten himself trapped into being the possible victim of massive and agonizing death. He doesn’t know what he has done, or what can happen next, but he is a living dog, wanting to live, a funny little fucker indeed, able to give himself up to the regulatory agents who entrap him so they can use him to entrap Hicks and Marge.
Stone, as I see it, is a nineteenth-century moralist, as eager as Carlyle or George Eliot to make the precise assessments required to judge the choices made by an individual or a society John Converse has scurried about creation with casual arrogance, and there is no better judgment to be made. Yet if aimlessness, destruction, and institutional wantonness do not preclude choice and so do not preclude judgment, they make Stone’s task far different from that of any writer of a century ago. What if one did see the bombs fall on the Cambodians? How easy then to make judgments, and of anything but oneself. Converse, at that moment, only cries. But here, as he remembers the scene, after having chosen to put the world once again murderously at his throat, he neither shrinks nor sentimentally implicates himself in the bombing. He is not one of Ian’s perves, come to Vietnam to see it die, yet he was there, and it was dying, and now he is scurrying through the lobby of a San Francisco hotel because he casually fell into its corruption. So he can only soldier on, a dog, but alive.
It is a tremendous moment, and had Stone seen where then to take his novel, Dog Soldiers could have been one of the best American books of his generation. The first half does something with all the myths and clichés about current living that on other novel I know has done: it takes on the grimness of our worst fears about ourselves and gives meaning to the lives it thereby embodies. Such unappetizing characters these are, such figures for satire and horror stories—yet that is not the sense we have of them at all.
Nor is it all downhill from here. This scene is immediately followed by one of great ghastliness which for most readers will be the worst and most memorable one in the book. Hicks is committed to going all the way with Marge but has no idea of the way; Marge is letting the heroin take command of her life; in Los Angeles they’re asked to do up a writer friend of the guy they’re trying to sell the stuff to, and Hicks, suddenly, cruelly, in vicious judgment of everything, murders the writer by shooting the heroin into his wrist. It is twenty pages that any writer might envy Stone for, but it only forestalls the inevitable truth that if these living dogs live because it is all they know, and if they are deeply enmeshed in a plot, there must follow some headlong action of the sort that always is in danger of simplifying the whole.
Hicks and Marge head east to the desert hideout of an ex-religious leader; Converse, hauled by the “agents,” comes down to find them so his captors can find the stash. Everyone comes together at last, and plot becomes plot in the narrow sense, simple action, and through the long hunt and chase the characters remain static. For action to be decisive, lives must have clarifying turning points, and Stone doesn’t want that, though he knows this action must kill Hicks somehow. So the chase is followed at the end with a series of glimpses of Converse and Marge that show them shaken but essentially unchanged. But this very fact makes the climactic big scene merely exciting and well done. The more seriously Stone takes his characters, the more carefully he brings their aimlessness to a decision, the more he eventually either jettisons the aimlessness or falsifies the decisiveness and its importance. I’m not sure how he could better have pondered his materials and his wonderful first half, but the remainder is good writing that seems divorced from a wider purpose than its own existence, and so seems just like writing.
The problem here is an old problem, one that has haunted the realistic novel as it has persisted in these latter days when, though the novel itself is alive and well, the conventions with which the realistic novel began certainly seem dead. The myth had it that the atomization of society destroyed the importance the novel as a form had sought to impart to individual lives. To support the myth, one could point to the way many of the best novels of the past generation have invested importance only in the imagination of the performing novelist; language is set free, the result is comic, visionary, and grotesque by turns. But the realistic novel has persisted, and at its recent best, as in Dog Soldiers, it does so not as a literary vestige but as a way of still seeing and knowing the life that goes on. Converse, Marge, and Hicks are not complex figures, but they are not symbolic figures or mouthpieces either. The first half of Dog Soldiers takes them as they are, and seriously, without once overrating their importance; the second half falls victim to a plot, as so many older realistic novels do, that does not so much realize these characters’ lives as finish off an action in which novelist and characters have become enmeshed.
Yet even in its most headlong and least effective pages, Dog Soldiers shows Stone’s clear eye for detail and clear-eyed determination to see these lives through to some end without sentimentalizing them. Throughout, thus, his integrity gives us a sense of learning at first hand what most of us have known only as hearsay or freak-out. He brings the news, as novelists are supposed to do; he makes one think we have only begun to understand our immediate past.