(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Dog Soldiers Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 convinced himself and his employer that an assignment as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam will benefit both the magazine and his own career as a playwright. He has been in Vietnam for eighteen months, working and looking for inspiration to overcome his writer’s block. He stays in touch with his wife, Marge, though letters. Marge works at an adult theater and is pronarcotics; the two of them have an open marriage and a young daughter named Janey.

Converse’s former lover and present narcotics connection in Saigon is an American named Charmian, a judge’s daughter who left Washington after her involvement in a political scandal. After acquiring uncut heroin from Charmian and briefly discussing a plan to smuggle the drug to the United States, Converse joins Jill and Ian Percy for drinks and dinner.

Ian Percy is an Australian agronomist who has been in Vietnam for fifteen years, working for any world organization that would hire him. Converse and Ian enter into an argument about the life and country of Vietnam. Ian takes offense and reacts strongly to Converse’s flippant attitude and callous remarks about the war and its victims. Ian maintains that Converse has not been in the country long enough to make jokes about it, and Converse rebuts that his presence at a fragmentation bombing in Cambodia gives him license to say whatever he wants. During dinner, a bomb goes off on the street, shaking the restaurant and sending people outside to survey the damage, count the death toll, and watch the police quickly secure the area with barbed wire.

Converse meets an old acquaintance named Ray Hicks on the American base of My Lat, where they discuss the details of transporting the drugs to the United States. Hicks, a merchant marine on his third tour of duty, is a follower of the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as of Zen Buddhism and the code of the feudal Japanese samurai. A volatile yet highly resourceful man, Hicks delivers the heroin to Converse’s house in Berkeley, California, but notices that he is being followed. Soon after he arrives, two men claiming to be special investigators break into the house to seize the drugs.

The men work for Antheil, a corrupt federal agent. Hicks finds out from the men that...

(The entire section is 1017 words.)

Dog Soldiers Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1975 and filmed as Who’ll Stop the Rain in 1978, Dog Soldiers depicts the ongoing effects of the Vietnam War back home in the United States, where heroin has become an obsession and it is hard to tell friend from enemy. Its title derives from a passage in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, rephrased by Ernest Hemingway, about grimly soldiering on, leading a dog’s life but staying alive. A piece in the Guardian (“There It Is”) had set the stage for this book, detailing the crazed violence of the war (helicopter pilots gunning down elephants, the Saigon tax office bombed). Vignettes from that piece are worked into the first forty-one pages of Dog Soldiers.

Despite its initial scenes in Vietnam, however, Dog Soldiers concentrates not on combat but on the impact of the war on the moral certainties, loyalties, and conscience of the civilian United States, where, as Stone later said, “all sorts of little bills were coming up due for payment.” The novel argues that the Vietnam War most affected values back home, infecting the survivors with greed and corruption summed up in the heroin underworld. Stone calls the 1970’s “a creepy, evil time” and Dog Soldiers his reaction to it.

John Converse, a talented but tainted journalist on assignment to Vietnam, schemes with an acquaintance, Charmian, to smuggle three kilograms of pure heroin home from Vietnam for a $40,000 profit. To do so he enlists the aid of ex-Marine Ray Hicks, a friend but also “probably a psychopath” and therefore usable. What Converse does not realize is that he has been set up from...

(The entire section is 688 words.)