Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dog SoldiersDog Soldiers by Robert Stone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the cover of Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers" a blurb from Washington Post Book World screams "The Most Important Novel of the Year". Had this been indeed true, then 1973 would have been a terrible year for books. "Dog Soldiers" is just a complex and competent thriller, with some nuggets of social observation thrown in to make it appear wise and deep.

1973, Saigon. Vietnam war is winding down. The main characters are John Converse, a low-level journalist and an aspiring writer, his wife, Marge, and an American soldier, Ray Hicks, who is a sort of Converse's friend. Converse has Hicks smuggle a large package of heroin from Vietnam into California. The bulk of the plot describes attempts of numerous bad characters to get that package in various California locations. The action-filled plot is interesting, yet, especially towards the end, totally implausible.

I have serious reservations as to Mr. Stone's writing. The dialogues in the first part of the novel are jarringly unnatural. One can eventually get accustomed to less than stellar dialogues and towards the end they read almost fine. Only Marge and Ray feel like real people, Converse is close but does not quite make it, and the bad guys and some women characters are just caricatures. There are some nicely drawn minor players, though. It has taken me such a long time to get through the book as I had to force myself to continue reading.

Most characters, while being drunk to the gills, are constantly high on heroin, dilaudid, and other drugs, including hallucinogenic mushrooms. They talk in a rather highbrow language ("Let smiles cease, let laughter flee") and conduct bombastic philosophical discussions on the deeper issues of the nature of being, even while being tortured or while dying. All this is rather silly. Maybe it was considered innovative in 1973, but I read deeper books that involved addiction, which had been written much earlier (as an example, Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano", published in 1947).

The greatest sin of the novel is its pretentiousness. Mr. Stone uses Big Words to write about Big Issues. More talented writers can write about big issues using small words.

What saves "Dog Soldiers" from a two-star rating is an adept portrayal of the insanity and horrors of war and of the societal breakdown caused by the war. The slow death of the hippie era is shown well. Also, while the bulk of the plot in the last third of the book is preposterous, the very last four of five pages provide a wonderfully nasty closing to the plot.

Two and three quarter stars.

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