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 …