In terms of its action, Dog Soldiers may be considered a thriller. Its plot, however, is merely a vehicle for an elaborate superstructure containing a mordant, satiric, despairing meditation on the manner in which the experience of Vietnam invaded the American consciousness.
The plot tells of John Converse, a weak though talented journalist, and his scheme to smuggle three kilos of pure heroin from Vietnam to the United States. He has been sent on assignment to Vietnam by his father-in-law, Elmer Bender, the ruthless publisher of a sensationalist scandal sheet. The idea to smuggle the heroin is an expression of the increase in Converse’s amorality and confusion resulting from his exposure to America at war in Vietnam.
To assist in the smuggling, Converse enlists Ray Hicks, a former Marine Corps friend, and, to Converse, “probably a psychopath.” Hicks completes the task with ease. Then, as directed, he contacts Converse’s wife, Marge, who sells tickets at a pornographic cinema and lives on tranquilizers. At this point, however, everything begins to go dreadfully wrong, as though to confirm Hicks’s earlier perspective: “It’s gone funny in the states.”
Almost as soon as Hicks meets Marge, he is waylaid by hoodlums, and he and Marge are forced to flee. This flight across Southern California, and Converse’s subsequent pursuit of them, is the mainstay of the plot. The flight takes the characters through a generally unstable and often nightmarish social landscape. Among the characters whom Hicks and Marge meet is Eddie Peace, a sleazy Hollywood hanger-on, to whom Hicks unsuccessfully tries to sell the heroin. Shortly thereafter, Marge becomes addicted to heroin. Converse, on the other hand, is forced to pursue the heroin by some extremely unsavory lawmen, led by a certain Antheil. The differences between law and disorder are shown to be insignificant.
The flight ends in the mountains near the Mexican border, where Hicks visits his “alma mater,” an encampment run by Dieter, a guru of the Apocalypse. Here Converse and the lawmen corner them. Hicks, however, decides to make for Mexico with the heroin, but he dies of a gunshot wound, exposure, and exhaustion on the way. Converse, now reunited with Marge, finds Hicks but is too late to do anything to help. He decides to jettison the heroin, leaving it for the thuggish lawmen.
The novel’s action is accompanied by heavy symbolic and intellectual overtones. Characters exemplify a variety of philosophical and ideological emphases. Elmer Bender, for example, is a former Communist who served in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Lincoln Brigade. Now he is a malevolent cultural shyster, a remorseless manipulator of public taste and gullibility. On Dieter’s mountain, the action temporarily stalls to allow the guru to recount the commune’s history of drug-induced orgies of visionary overload masquerading as cosmic overview. In the context of these two embodiments of compulsive distorting, three kilos of heroin may seem to be a comparatively trivial matter.
Heroin, however, is a means of linking America at home with America in Vietnam. It unites the characters by revealing that, in the name of the drug, their behavior is distorted. Converse, having witnessed a United States Army drive to stamp out elephants—“enemy agents because the NVA used them to carry things”—reflects: “As for dope . . . and addicts—if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high. So there, Converse thought, that’s the way it’s done. He had confronted a moral objection and overriden it.” His thoughts anticipate Hicks’s remark to Eddie Peace: “I’m just doing what everybody else is doing.”
John Converse, once an up-and-coming playwright, has not written a successful play in almost a decade. He begrudgingly works as a sensationalist journalist at his father-in-law’s tawdry tabloid, Nightbeat . Converse has...
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