Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
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 Dog Soldiers and found it to be just as good as I remembered it.Visit Reece Hirsch's website.
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 the 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 novel 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.