Running Dog

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Midway through Don DeLillo’s Running Dog, a teenage boy ambles through Times Square with a walkie-talkie pressed to his ear. As he walks he mutters words into the mouthpiece, directing a movie that exists only in his imagination: “We are shooting live. This is a live action scene.” The “random brain noise” that fills his mind is perhaps a cause, perhaps an effect, of his private view of reality; but the most apparent symptom of his disorder is his confusion of the substance of life with the form of art. His mania symbolizes the behavior of all the characters in this novel: they are quite as mad as he, just not so obviously mad.

DeLillo favors broad subjects for his satire. His novel Ratner’s Star (1976) lashed every folly of modern science with as much fervor as the third voyage of Gulliver. In Running Dog he turns his attention to even larger targets: American arts, business, the press, and government. The subsections of the novel show these fields in their most degenerate state; the problem with each is a confusion of form and substance, appearance and reality. Through DeLillo’s mixing of representatives from these areas, we see that they all have been cheapened and perverted.

Each field has a sectional title of its own; the title of the whole, Running Dog, is also the name of a onetime radical news magazine. Formerly a harsh critic of the government, it has degenerated into a conspiracy mongering rag whose only connection with its past is a continuing and sophomoric use of obscenity. The first part of the novel shows the situation of art: its title, “Cosmic Erotics,” is the name of an art gallery specializing in obscene paintings and statuary. The second part, “Radial Matrix,” reflects the world of business; it is the name of a corporation whose tactics are not much different from those of the Mafia (with whom it is in competition). The third, “Marathon Mines,” gives us a look at corrupted government. Its title is the name of a former government training camp in survival techniques and sabotage.

The sickness in all of these areas is manifested by the same symptom: a preference for form over substance, a tendency to substitute a superficial and meaningless ritual for reality. The symbol of this disease appears early; surprisingly, it is Charlie Chaplin’s movie roles. Near the beginning of the novel, two of the characters attend a showing of The Great Dictator, in which they see Chaplin’s satire of Adolf Hitler—art imitating life. Although they often discuss the relationship between form and substance, no one seems to realize that they are all are living examples of the pernicious reverse of Chaplin’s theme: for them, life imitates art. Everything they do is artifice—their lives are scripts.

Fittingly, the plot of the novel concerns the machinations of the various factions for the possession of what they believe to be the ultimate pornographic movie. This film, the details of which are not revealed until the climax, was made in the bunker under the Reichs Chancellery in the spring of 1945. It may be (the would-be purchasers hope) a Nazi sex romp starring Hitler himself. As Lightborne, the owner of Cosmic Erotics, notes, the assumed setting and characters of the film lend themselves perfectly to pornography: leather, uniforms, weapons, the hint of near and present sadism, all the stage trappings of the Nazi regime are automatically erotic to a culture as jaded as ours. Lightborne may be able to acquire the film, he says, and on the strength of that possibility he begins the bidding for the film among his patrons.

Much about Lightborne is Satanic. His name suggests “Lucifer,” and his seedy appearance lends plausibility to a significant problem he has with one of his shoes in several scenes—he is losing his sole (DeLillo is perfectly capable of such a pun). Yet Lightborne’s character is most clearly revealed in his fear that the film (which he has not seen) may not be pornographic after all. It may be merely historic.

Lightborne’s bidders are a varied lot. There is Richie Armbrister, a twenty-two-year-old Dallas man who has built a worldwide corporate empire on smut. Another is U. S. Senator Lloyd Percival, who before the cameras is an important politician investigating illegal CIA activities, but who in private maintains a museum-sized collection of pornographic art in a building adjoining his house. His gallery is reached by a tunnel behind a fireplace, suggesting that he has his own...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXV, September 15, 1978, p. 153.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, July 1, 1978, p. 705.

New Republic. CLXXIX, October 7, 1978, p. 33.

New Yorker. LIV, September 18, 1978, p. 173.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, July 24, 1978, p. 79.

Saturday Review. V, September 16, 1978, p. 38.