Monday, August 12, 2013

Dog Eat Dog

By Reece Hirsch

In my last post, I talked about one of my favorite childhood books, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comes, so for this week's question I'll discuss the book that I reread most often.

I think most writers have at least one book that they keep returning to as a sort of Platonic ideal of what a great book should be.  For me, it's Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone.  I recently reread the book and found it to be just as good as I remembered it.

When I first found the book at age 15, I was too young to fully appreciate it.  I was impressed by the ecstatic reviews, the National Book Award and the cool cover of the paperback with a soldier carrying a hypodermic needle instead of a rifle. But even at first reading I was captured by the breathlessly paced story of a journalist who brings a shipment of heroin back to California from Vietnam and quickly gets in way over his head.

The book is more than just a tale of a drug deal gone bad and a chase from Berkeley to L.A. to the California desert near the Mexican border. Robert Stone is a writer who has never lacked for swing-for-the-fences ambition.  Dog Soldiers is a knowing portrait of failed Sixties countercultural ideals in the guise of a relentless and harrowing crime story.

The story works so well for me because it never reduces itself to a "statement."   Dog Soldiers is like a rocket that achieves enough velocity to carry a fairly substantial payload.  And that's what I like best about the book. For me, it demonstrates how much can be conveyed in a fast-moving, exciting story.

Of course, it's not always easy revisiting your Platonic ideal.  I reread some or all of Dog Soldiers every few years, and sometimes even I have to admit that the book has its shortcomings.  Sometimes its unstinting bleakness is hard to take, depending upon the frame of mind that I'm in at the time.  But, in the end, the book always wins me over because Stone is doing so many things so amazingly well -- sharp, funny, elliptical dialogue, consistently strong descriptive writing, believably screwed-up characters and a great story with echoes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

If Dog Soldiers were published today, it might have been considered a crime novel ... but then it probably wouldn't have won a National Book Award.

THE ADVERSARY UPDATE:  The first episode of my new novel THE ADVERSARY was released by Thomas & Mercer on August 6!  The book is being published initially as a Kindle Serial, which means that for $1.99 (, you receive a total of eight weekly installments delivered to your Kindle.  THE ADVERSARY is the first in a three-book series featuring Chris Bruen, a former DOJ cybercrimes prosecutor who is in private practice helping clients combat hackers and cybercriminals.  If you'd like to sample the first two chapters, they're available here (


Robin Spano said...

Sounds like a great book. I've never heard of it before today but I'll keep an eye out.

Reece said...

Stone has written several good ones, including "A Flag for Sunrise," but I'd definitely recommend "Dog Soldiers" as the one to start with.