Book #38: Dog Soldiers
Dirty. I feel dirty.
When I closed the last page of Dog Soldiers, I felt like taking a hot shower. After reading 300+ pages about the lengths to which junkies and amateur drug runners will go to protect their heroin, I just feel like I need a thorough wash.
Bleakness aside—and there’s a lot of bleakness—I like the story. It’s a fast-paced, gritty story that’s well conceived by Robert Stone.
John Converse is a journalist who comes back from covering the Vietnam War with a little more than just articles. With the help of his friend, Ray Hicks, Converse brings a massive stash of pure heroin into Los Angeles. Converse and Hicks separate and intend to meet back up in the States.
When Hicks gets back to L.A., he realizes he’s being followed. Along with Converse’s junkie wife, Marge, Hicks goes on the run, unsure of whether he’s been betrayed by Converse. The rest of the novel details Converse’s adventures trying to track down Hicks, Marge, and the stash, while being tortured by a group of renegade CIA agents. It’s wacky.
If you moved the setting and story of Blood Meridian to the 1960s counterculture America, it might look a little like Dog Soldiers. These people are messed up. If you’re looking for a happy-go-lucky, worthy hero to cheer for, then Dog Soldiers is not your book.
I’m hard pressed to find one character in this book with any redeeming quality. Well, there was Frodo…I liked him. Yes, a character named Frodo makes a brief appearance in Dog Soldiers. I think he has one line, and no ring was mentioned. But nicely done by Robert Stone.
Anyway, these people are just miserable human beings. Converse is so desparate and down on his woeful life as a journalist that he’s willing to bring the wrath of every heroin dealer in Los Angeles by attempting to cut in on their territory.
Hicks is crazy enough to help the guy. Marge is a sad junkie who drops her small daughter off and goes along for the ride….why? Just ‘cause I guess. It’s a sad lot of characters, which makes it a sad book, even though Hicks can provide occasional comic relief and witty one-liners, like this gem toward the end of the novel.
“If you couldn’t tell the difference between what hurt and what didn’t, you had no business being alive. You can’t have any good times if you can’t tell.”
Dog Soldiers isn’t a novel about Vietnam as much as it is a novel about the consequences of Vietnam. As the Time Magazine review points out, heroin is the poison that came home, just like the war, to seep into the conscience of America.
And that it did.
Robert Stone’s writing style is effective. When you finish the book, you probably won’t be mesmerized by his writing, but he gets the job done. He tells a good story with a lot of tension, keeping you intrigued.
And, most importantly, he writes good dialogue (and a lot of it), though, sometimes, his dialogue had that Neuromancerish, cheesy, action movie feel to it. Just sometimes. And the following isn’t one of those times. This is a conversation that Marge and Converse are having about their crazy friend, Hicks:
“He’s not a sane person,” Marge said. And he’s not very bright. Sometimes,” she told him, “people do simple-minded things like that. They take a chance to help their friends. Can you respond to that?
“Yes I can respond to it,” Converse said. “I’m responding to it. He won’t be there.”
“Haven’t you ever done anything like that?”
“Yes and no,” Converse said. When he turned to her, she moved her back to him pressing her forehead against the hard metal seatback. “Like what?” he demanded. “I don’t know what that guy did or why he did it. I don’t know what I’m doing or why I do it or what it’s like….”
“Nobody knows,” Converse told her confidently. “That’s the principle we were defending over there. That’s why we fought the war.”
So enough about the good stuff. Other parts of Dog Soldiers fell a little flat. To me, the characters seemed predictable, a little one dimensional. Their moral compass never swung in any other direction than “do something stupid.”
Neither Converse nor Marge ever seems to consider their young daughter, who they’ve left with their psycho parents. As a reader, I could see Hicks’ oncoming self-destruction from a mile away. So while the story was action-packed and fast-paced and easy to read, it always seemed to be moving toward a predictable conclusion. This really wasn’t going to end well for anyone.
And, as a reader, even though I don’t know how these characters will get there, I still don’t really want to know where they are going. And that’s what I felt like with Dog Soldiers.
Maybe I would’ve had more appreciation for this novel if I had lived during the Vietnam War or been more of a fan of the hippie culture. After all, reading is a personal thing. That’s why we all can have such different experience with the same novel.
For me, Dog Soldiers is good for a one-time read through, and that’s about it. In this amateur reviewer’s mind, I just found the characters in this novel to be awful. That outweighed any redeeming qualities of Dog Soldiers. I’ll be putting this one up on the shelf.
The Opening Line: “There was only one bench in the shade and Converse went for it, although it was already occupied.”
The Meaning: The term “dog soldier” is a reference to the elite fighter in Indian tribes. The book’s meaning might be more related to these American drug runners who brought the Vietnam war, in the form of heroin, home with them.
Highlights: Fast-paced. Action. Good tension. A lot of bad guys, if you’re into that. I’m surprised Dog Soldiers was never made into a movie when Vietnam flicks were coming out once a month.
Lowlights: I wouldn’t call these characters flat, but they are predictable. Stereotypes even. Granted, it’s been 50 years since the hippie movement so I have the benefit of years of seeing the hippie movement portrayed in pop culture again and again and again. Even so, I just didn’t like these characters. I seemed to know their next step too often.
Memorable Line: “If you couldn’t tell the difference between what hurt and what didn’t, you had no business being alive.” -Ray Hicks
Final Thoughts: Heroin. Sex. Guns. Vietnam. Dog Soldiers has it all, in terms of the basest, most vile parts of American culture in the last 50 years. It’s a seedy, dirty, gritty novel. But, from what I can tell, Dog Soldiers gives you a fairly accurate picture of that time period. It’s a good fast-paced story with somewhat predictable characters and plot. One read through on this one is plenty.