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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When you're down in the Rain: Living the low life in Dog Soldiers

Noting now that Robert Stone's 1974 novel Dog Soldiers is not about Vietnam - though it begins there, at the height of the war - but is about a drug deal - moving pure heroin out of Saigon, via a military transport, into California - and in particular about the chain of risk-taking, clever, drug-crazed, well-educated (often self-educated) misfits that move the Rx for a few thousand bucks. Stone is rightly known, honored, and remembered as a chronicler of tough guys and tough talk, and his novels, from what I know of them, are worth reading for the dialogue alone: enigmatic, even cryptic, with phrases often broken off, interrupted. Everything in his novels is oblique, characters never quite sit down with one another and say, look, this is what we're going to do, this is the plan. It's really hard to follow all the mechanics of this drug deal - and totally unnecessary. What happens isn't so important as how it happens or who's making it happen. Your opinion of the novel, however, will depend on how well you can tolerate life among the low-lifes: a washed up journalist hoping to rekindle something of his skills in Vietnam, where others are risking their lives; an ex-Maine who reads Nietzsche on the side and smuggles the heroin aboard an aircraft carrier and picks fights on scary downtown Oakland bars, the journalist's wife who works the night shift in a porn theater and pops pills on her way home to take care of her kids. All of this seems, to a guy who knows no better (me), completely accurate and legit and possible - but maybe it's all bullshit, I just don't know. At the very least, Stone has a great imagination and a facility for creating scenes that seem visceral and plausible. Maybe he knows this world as well, through research, ears open, or experience. Not sure it matters anyway - though I suppose some of his "knowledge" comes from pop culture, pulp fiction, and noir cinema, not from hanging out in biker bars and shooting parlors. As with most fiction, the success and magnitude of Dog Soldiers will depend, in the end (I'm about 1/3 through), on whether characters grow, evolve, learn anything from their experiences; in earlier post I compared the first chapters with Graham Greene, and you can see in his best novels how important character growth is to the success of the form - so far Dog Soldiers very powerful writing but pretty much all on one plain or level: low.

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