I devoured Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone this week. It had me up past my bedtime, racing toward the end. In this rather literary thriller, we join lightly shell-shocked American journo John Converse in Vietnam, writing for “Nightbeat, which his lawyers described as A Weekly Tabloid With a Heavy Emphasis on Sex,” as he gives up on ever writing his novel to try his hand at running heroin instead. It fits squarely into one of my favorite subject areas in American literature – the clash between the state and the psychadelic spirit, war and counter-culture, conspiracy and love, or, how the 60s were lost.
Dog Soldiers opens with a feverish Converse on a park bench in Saigon, reading a letter from his strangely disaffected wife who recounts a recent trip to New York, where she and some friends “went to a parade which was for the War”:
Three of us—me, looking relatively straight, and Don and Cathy looking modified freaky. We weren’t too well received. You had to see that action to believe it. … My flash was that these people are freakier than we ever could be. One tends to think of them as straight but when you see them they’re unreal.
(This observation is every bit as true in the Trump era as it was then.)
This sense of unreality pervades the novel – if the States have become “funnier,” as characters warn each other repeatedly, Vietnam itself may be the corrupting influence. Converse converses with an American missionary sharing his park bench between reading snatches of his letter. “‘Satan,’ she called to him, ‘is very powerful here.’ ‘Yes,’ Converse said. ‘He would be.’” Or, as Sergeant Janeway says to Converse as he arranges a pretext to see his pal Hicks, who can transport the dope – “Every day in this place … we entertain the weird, the strange, the unusual.”