The Resolution Project Book Thirty-One: Dog Soldiers (1974)

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books / the resolution project

“‘All summer these people sweat fire, all winter they sweat the floods. Shit creeps out of the night under those sundecks, and they know it.’ He was shouting at her over the wind and the engine. ‘Fucking L.A., man – go out for a Sunday spin, you’re a short hair from the dawn of creation.'” (p. 164 Kindle version)

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.

Dog Soldiers cover

John Converse is a writer for Nightbeat magazine, cooling his heels in Saigon as the Vietnam War winds down. Seeing a chance to make one final splash, he acquires a large quantity of heroin, which he gives to his old Marine buddy Ray Hicks to take back home on a Merchant Marine boat. The plan is for Hicks to deliver the scag to Converse’s wife Marge, but things get out of hand and Hicks and Marge are forced to go on the run through the hellish post-Manson Southern California.

Recipe for one Dog Soldiers: take Thomas Pynchon’s California landscape (as seen in The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland and Inherent Vice), add in a little bit of James Ellroy-McGuffinry (the big bag of H from The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential), mix in a little post-hippie solipsism and stir with a Deliverance-esque wilderness shootout finale.

I was actually pretty disappointed by this book. I don’t really know what I was expecting, though. Perhaps more Vietnam stuff? Actually, the sequences of Converse in Vietnam were pretty good. He actually seems pretty at home in the place, having dinner with other expats while bombs go off and kids get killed. It matches the sort of things you end up seeing reported in Nightbeat, a National Inquirer-esque rag devoted to the perverted and strange. It’s once the narrative focus switches to Marge and Hicks that was the problem.

Both characters have their viewpoints clouded somehow: Marge is a habitual abuser of the drug dilaudid, and eventually moves to heroin once it comes into her perception. Higgs also partakes in the H, but in his case it seems like an escape from how shitty his life has become since being deployed as a Marine in Japan. He also uses it in a Scarface-esque “stimpak” sense, to stay on his feet after incurring multiple bullet wounds. I had a difficult time sympathizing with either of these two junkies. Marge is only characterized briefly, and spend the rest of her time sleeping with Hicks at the drop of a hat essentially. Hicks is a little more interesting; he practices a sort of Zen/Samurai approach to life, which came to him after living at the mountain refuge of Dieter, the site of the novel’s climax.

I think the big reason for the lack of enjoyment I received from Dog Soldiers came from not only the fact that it is an incredibly dated piece (lacking the metatextuality, reflexivity and gags that lift Pynchon’s work out of the same morass), but also that I was struck by an insane thought while reading this book. It’s pretty much what a dark(er) prequel to The Big Lebowski would look like.

"Mark it zero, Dude!"

After this thought, I couldn’t think of anything else. The slacker journalist Converse was obviously a Jeffrey Lebowski “Year One” reboot, while the seemingly imperturbable samurai warrior Hicks was Walter Sobchak, 1974. Even the token female in the piece, Marge, is not too far off from Maude Lebowski, the femme fatale artiste. The gay mob muscle duo? Straight out of Coen bad-guy central casting. The depraved Antheil, narcotics agent and bagman? Obviously the sheriff of Malibu, 20 years earlier. I felt like I was intruding on someone’s garden party by the end of it.

SO, in conclusion, Dog Soldiers was just okay. It is no Lebowski (but what is, really?), but it’s no Blood Meridian, either. It just felt like a low-rent mashup version of many other things I’ve enjoyed previously. When it won the National Book Award in 1975, the judges must have still been working through the previous winner (Gravity’s Rainbow) and had to pick something fast.

“In the end there were not many things worth wanting – for the serious man, the samurai. But there were some. In the end, if the serious man is still bound to illusion, he selects the worthiest illusion and takes a stand. The illusion might be of waiting for one woman to come under his hands. Of being with her and shivering in the same moment. If I walk away from this, he thought, I’ll be an old man -all ghosts and hangovers and mellow recollections. Fuck it, he thought, follow the blood. This is the one. This is the one to ride till it crashes.” (p. 168, Kindle version)

Who would I recommend this book to?: People who’ve exhausted the oeuvres of Pynchon, Ellroy, Chandler and Hammett, and are looking for more hard-boiled crime stuff with a philosophical bent. People who don’t have flashbacks from ‘Nam. People who like reading about heroin addicts.

Total pages read since January 1st: 12877 pp.

Total books on the Time 100 list read since January 1st (not including ones read before 2011): 30

Next up on the Resolution Project: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster (1924)

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

2 Comments

  1. Dear Matt, I honestly feel you’ve overlooked Dog Soldiers’ originality
    + impact as a novel published in 1975 (a year before the US left Vietnam). I think the terseness was Stone’s way of looking at those times through a Conradian moralist perspective. I agree, he was sometimes over the top but I think he was trying to frame an indictment of that era. Look again at the frontpiece quote from Heart of Darkness. The examples you cite from Coen films came much later. Stone’s character, Ray Hicks, based on his time with Neal Cassidy as a Merry Prankster, was, I believe, a prescient creation that many later writers appropriated. Your quote about “the serious man’ captures Hicks’ central dilemma + one that reflected the times. Please give Stone’s later novels a chance. I believe it will be rewarding. Regards, mc

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comments! Back when I wrote this review I was kind of trying to tie the books from the Time Magazine list to examples from pop culture. So I can understand your frustration with my Coens comparison, as of course they come way later (and are very fond of references to other artists). I guess with this being one of the first American books to really come out of the war it’s pretty impressive, but the Southern California stuff I remember feeling a little old hat by that point chronologically, especially with Lot 49 coming out years earlier. Also I read this book four years ago, so I’m not entirely sure I’d agree with my assessment now. Which Stone novel would you recommend next?

    All the best,

    Matt

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