#2: Dog Soldiers (1974), by Robert Stone

“You seem just like an ordinary guy. Why’d you try it?”
“We’re all just ordinary guys.”

For many years I found it hard to believe that the Vietnam War ended only 7 years before I was born. Even at the height of our Middle East misadventure of the last decade, I had to remind myself that the public furor was but a fraction of the Vietnam War’s. Comparing our relative tranquility to the utter chaos depicted in Rick Perlstein’s long but fascinating book Nixonland makes it seem like Vietnam was a relic of a long-buried era. Race riots. Cambodia. Manson. Watergate. Watchwords that are now shorthand for a period defined by paranoia, drugs, and uprising.

As always, the era’s popular culture reflected this. I wasn’t alive to see Saigon fall, but I have seen the iconic movies (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, et al.) and read the seminal books (The Things They Carried, Dispatches), all painting a bleak picture of a country at war both overseas and with itself.

Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers is a similarly celebrated piece of Vietnam literature that absolutely no one talks about. It won the National Book Award in 1975, beating out perennial heavyweights Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Vladimir Nabokov, and a go-getter named Toni Morrison.Yet somehow it seems to have fallen through the cracks. I rarely see it on bookstore shelves, and Stone is seldom cited as a major author of the period.  What gives?

Certainly I had never heard of Robert Stone or this novel when it was assigned to me in an undergraduate Contemporary Lit course. And I must not have read it too carefully, because this second reading took me totally by surprise. I knew there were dozens of shady characters doing shady things, but I somehow neglected to recall how adrenalized the story gets, how it doubles as a languorous rumination on the failed American Dream and a turbo-charged, drug-fueled thriller (put THAT on the back of the next edition, publishers!)

When the novel begins, we’re introduced to John Converse, a wayward journalist/failed playwright in Vietnam to look for inspiration for his next play. After taking inventory of the situation, he has decided, with his wife Marge back home, to get into the heroin trade. Converse performs some mental gymnastics to get past the murky ethics of drug dealing in a monologue Walter White could appreciate:

The last moral objection that Converse experienced in the traditional manner had been his reaction to the Great Elephant Zap of the previous year. That winter, the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam, had decided that elephants were enemy agents because the NVA used them to carry things, and there had ensued a scene worthy of the Ramayana. Many-armed, hundred-headed MACV had sent forth steel-bodied flying insects to destroy his enemies, the elephants. All over the country, whooping sweating gunners descended from the cloud cover to stampede the herds and mow them down with 7.62-millimeter machine guns.

And as for dope, Converse thought, and addicts — if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.

Moral qualms dealt with, Converse hooks up with Ray Hicks, a Nietzsche-quoting Marine who can smuggle the heroin into the States, where it will be delivered to Marge. Except of course the deal goes bad, Hicks and Marge have to flee with the drugs (leaving the Converses’ young child in the hands of God knows who), and a 200-page chase ensues, the end of which deliberately parallels the jungles of Vietnam.

Less important than the particulars of the chase, which accelerates once Converse returns home and finds a pornographic likeness of the devil drawn above his child’s crib, is the general mood hovering over every scene — a post-60s hangover dripping in pessimism and Manson Family paranoia. “Every day in this place,” one character muses, “we entertain the weird, the strange, the unusual.” It could well be a thesis statement for this bleak but compelling novel.

Stray observations:

  • I opened this piece by writing that I have long found it hard to see Vietnam as a recent event, at least from a civil disobedience perspective. Are we beginning to see the makings of another? Are people sufficiently angry enough? Surely the ingredients (total lack of faith in government, rampant paranoia) are there.
  • Robert Stone was a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and reportedly based the Hicks character on Neal Cassady. Given the novel’s nihilistic tone, is it safe to say Stone has a conflicted view of the 1960s? And is the hideaway at the end of the novel supposed to be an homage to Kesey’s California commune?
  • One thing I think Stone does well here is condition you to think Converse is the focal character of the story (the “good guy” in a cast full of morally bankrupt ones), but ultimately (and subtly) shifts your sympathies to the man Converse suspects of being a psychopath, Hicks.
Next up: From one war to another, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22!


  1. I’m looking forward to reading this one next once I finish up Gone With the Wind. It looks like it taps into a Pynchon-by-way-of-Ellroy vibe that I totally would be in to. And now that I have a Kindle, I can actually locate the book!

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