Robert Stone, 1937–2015

In the early ’70s three important novels were published that sorted through the wreckage of the Faustian project that was the American ’60s and reckoned up the costs of our excesses and hubris: Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers. And the greatest of these was Dog Soldiers.

Robert Stone
Robert Stone

Stone, who died last weekend, did not invent the literary thriller, the novel that serves up action and adventure in exotic locales along with a strong dose of moral inquiry into matters of good and evil. Credit for that goes to Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, with a nod to Ernest Hemingway in certain moods. But Stone did infuse the form with a jolt of countercultural energy and a hip, sardonic tone of disillusionment, which revivified the genre and made Dog Soldiers (1974) a perfect book for its moment of defeat abroad and political scandal at home. Like a thousand lesser novels since, it is a race/chase exercise that turns on the consequences of a drug deal gone terribly wrong. John Converse, a lefty journalist in Vietnam in 1971 and a walking failure of nerve, enlists a friend, a Nietzsche-quoting ex-combat Marine named Hicks, in a scheme to move two kilos of purest-grade heroin back to the States on a merchant vessel. He is to deliver the skag to Marge, Converse’s strung-out wife, marking time as a ticket taker in a porn theater in the Mission District. She has been instructed to hand the drugs over to persons unknown, but the transfer goes awry, and she and Hicks hit the road with it, corrupt federal agents in close pursuit. The heroin serves as both the McGuffin that stirs the plot and the best kind of symbol, one that works perfectly on the plane of reality—enormous amounts of horse came back to the States from Southeast Asia, and the CIA was deeply involved (you could look it up), along with large numbers of addicted GIs—and on the literary plane as an emblem of blowback from our imperial folly and of the country’s fallen estate.

As a cradle Catholic, Robert Stone knew something about fallen estates and about evil. “Satan is very powerful here,” a missionary lady tells Converse on Tu Do Street, and while she is clearly a borderline religious fanatic, the book’s sense of menace is so strong that you believe it. The Vietnam War has replaced American innocence with an all-encompassing cynicism and scoured away our ideals. As in this much quoted exchange between Converse and Hicks:

“This is the place where everybody finds out who they are.”

“What a bummer for the gooks.”

And Converse’s internal inquiry into the possible moral objections to his drug smuggling concludes thusly: “As for dope, Converse thought, and addicts—if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.”

I read Dog Soldiers the year it came out while fully participating the widespread mood of cultural despair. Everything was fucked. How did everything get so completely fucked? The book delivered not just a reading experience of tremendous excitement, at a time when a louche self-consciousness and a certain narrative entropy were all the literary rage, but also a powerful dose of clarity. Ah, so Manson and My Lai were part of the larger American gestalt, not discrete phenomena—good to know. For a time I adopted Hicks’s exasperated exclamation as my personal mantra: “I’m tired of being fucked with by inferior people!” And I came to love and trust Robert Stone as a writer who was going to reliably deliver home truths and the Big Picture in the novel form, and with a uniquely American sense of evil that partook of the native genius of Melville, Poe, and Hawthorne. He was everything I ever wanted in a contemporary American writer and I am going to miss him like hell. Because who is going is going to explain this sorry world to us now?

Gerald Howard is an editor at Doubleday.