Thursday, February 9, 2017

Dog Soldiers/Who'll Stop the Rain

I read Charles Hansen's drug-themed story collection Trips (published under the name Charles Fischer) several years ago and it made an impression. The characters and situations depicted within defied what I thought of as the standard stock and trope of drug literature and turned them into brave explorers and adventure stories. In the book's introduction Kent Anderson says of his own experiences with drugs "I can't recommend drugs to anyone, any more than I can recommend going to war. I'm lucky to be alive, yet those days were rich with life, risk, self-knowledge and smiling death, my companion and teacher. Perhaps it's morally superior to just 'say no' all your life than rot in a nursing home or end up sucking on Dr. Kevorkian's carbon monoxide bottle, but I don't think so," and, as a sheltered kid grown into a naive adult, I found that a compelling, chewy thought.

I asked Charles to recommend me some of his favorite drug stories (books or films) and he hit me up with this little essay about Robert Stone's novel Dog Soldiers and the filmed adaptation, Karel Reisz's Who'll Stop the Rain.

I hope you don't need my endorsement to check out the book and the film, but for heaven's sake, do search out the out of print Trips.

On Dog Soldiers/Who’ll Stop the Rain
by Charles Hansen

[Epigraph for Dog Soldiers]:

I’ve seen the devil of violence and the devil of greed and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars!
 these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils that swayed
 and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on that
 hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land, I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending weak-eyed devil 
of a rapacious and pitiless folly.
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

 "I’ve waited my whole life to fuck up like this.
-John Converse from Dog Soldiers/Who’ll Stop the Rain

Spoiler Alert! If you don’t already know that a Robert Stone hero is just some fuck-up looking for a noble cause to die for, then his novel Dog Soldiers, from which the film Who’ll Stop the Rain was adapted, is good as any place to learn the lesson, I guess.

I recently returned to Who’ll Stop the Rain, for an answer to a question that I forgot I’d once asked. It comes up at the finish of one of the very best heroin scenes ever put on the page or screen. Ray Hicks (our hero), Marge Converse (the wife of the book’s less tragic hero John Converse), and Eddie Peace- a somewhat degenerate drug dealer (is there any other kind?) and a couple of naïf junkies are thrown together because a two-kilo heroin deal has gone to shit. As the result of some severe miscommunication, Ray tires of the whole sordid scene and decides to cut it short by giving Eddie Peace and the Hollywood naïfs a lethal dose. And here the question arises, did they or didn’t they expire? Hint: It’s hard to tell.

The central conflict in this war novel Dog Soldiers is not between our ‘heroes’, such as they are, and the evil scum-sucking and bent narcs whose intent it is to rip them off and kill them. The prime battle is among those who treat life or death situations with the proper seriousness, and the many dilettantes who insist on inserting themselves into situations beyond their ken. The Vietnam War, which forms the setting and the background of this tale is dragged into this debate thusly: America killed a million Vietnamese but were we serious about it? After all, we didn’t even slaughter them with the dignity accorded food. Instead we exterminated them like they were noxious weeds. Something to be eliminated for our western democracy nature preserve of the mind. It’s why we killed from far above and with, more often than not, napalm, herbicides and high explosives. Vietnam wasn’t a war, it was a nation-wide landscaping project.

John Converse (reading from a paper in Saigon): “Elephants declared enemy agents.”

We didn’t even commit all that many front line troops. Hence, the relatively low America GI death toll of fifty-plus thousand. Still, the more radical elements of the American left promised to “Bring the war back home.” Ray Hicks and John Converse, our erstwhile heroes, decide instead to bring back some excellent China White smack and declare victory for themselves.

Early on Hicks and John Converse have a conversation about their inaugural Vietnam-to-America heroin smuggling venture:

Hicks: I didn’t know we were that way?

Converse: We’re that way. Isn’t this where everyone finds out who they are?

Hicks: Yeah. What a bummer for the gooks.

Robert Stone was not a moralist when it comes to drugs. He took them (so to speak) as they came. For instance, when Hicks and Marge Converse go on the run with John Converse’s heroin, Hicks introduces Marge to the real shit. Before she was just a pill head, but now she gets a taste:

She hit the other one, and then sat stock-still; tears ran from her closed eyes. Slowly, she bent forward and rested her forehead against the desk. Hicks moved the phone book out of her way.
In a few minutes, she sat up again and turned to him. She was smiling. She put her arms around his waist; her tears and runny nose wet his shirt. He bent down to her; she rested her head on his shoulder. The tension drained from her in small sobs.
“Better than a week in the country, right?”
Holding to him, she stood up and he helped her to the bed. She lay across it, arching her back, stretching her arms and legs toward its four corners.
“It’s a lot better than a week in the country,” she said.  (Dog Soldiers, p. 170.)

Not exactly a stinging indictment against heroin use, is it?

Why is Who’ll Stop the Rain, such a great junkie’s movie? Maybe it is because heroin is not for dilettantes and Ray Hicks is the embodiment of this truth. He has logical reasons for killing the Hollywood fools that have come to sample his wares, but, really, he does them in because he just hates fools.  How better to make them pay than to have their own curiosity do them in.

In the book this central scene takes place in seedy cabins by the beach in Topanga Canyon. In the movie Gerald and Jody’s posh home in the hills above LA is where the fun takes place.

Here is Gerald as sets himself up for his own demise:

“I’m a writer,” he said.
Eddie Peace joined the tips of his thumb and index finger like a billboard chef and blew him a kiss.
“Now scag is a problem . . . or a phenomenon . . . that’s important. It’s a subject which has a lot of significance, particularly right now.”
“Particularly right now,” said Eddie.
“I mean,” Gerald told them, “I’ve done dope like a lot of people have. I’ve blown acres of pot in my time and I’ve had some beautiful things with acid. But in all honesty I’ve never been in a scag environment because it just wasn’t my scene.”
“But now,” Marge suggested, “it’s your scene.”
Gerald blushed slightly.
“Not exactly. But it’s something I feel I should address. As a writer. Because of the significance it has.”
“Particularly now,” Marge said.  (Dog Soldiers, p 189. Kindle edition.)

Then comes what for every needle-freak, dope fiend is climactic:

“Your works or mine, Eddie?”
“Mine,” Eddie said. “They’re new.”
His works were new, a regulation syringe, without improvisations. He had cotton and a jar of surgical alcohol. Hollywood.
“Now that’s what I call narcotics paraphernalia, ”Hicks said.
“I got better than that,” Eddie said. “I got coke to run with it. I don’t go for that nowhere noddy feeling.”
“I do,” Marge said.
“Sure you do. You’re a broad.”
He assembled the needle and admired its luster. Jody watched him. (Dog Soldiers, pp. 196, Kindle edition.)

And afterwards?
Marge tried to experience Gerald’s overdose as a good idea. It was not the way she was used to looking at things.

“So fuck Gerald?”
“That’s right,” Hicks said. “Fuck Gerald.”
“For all the obvious reasons.”
“Fuck all the obvious reasons.”  (Dog Soldiers, pp. 202, Kindle edition.)

And a moment later: “Once, I joined the marines. Never again will I be fucked around by morons.

Missing from the film version is one of Dog Soldiers major characters, Deiter Bechstein. He is a guru of Ray Hicks, a father figure he abandoned for the marines. He is based on author and world-famous acid head Ken Kesey. This was a smart omission by the screenwriters Robert Stone and Judith Rascoe because it makes the film more timeless than the book. Deiter Bechstein and the dialogue between him and Marge Converse and later Hicks roots Dog Soldiers firmly in its time the 60s and early 70s.

Here, Deiter explains Hicks’s relationship with reality much in the same way Ken Kesey described Neal Cassady, the real life basis for Hicks:

There was absolutely no difference between thought and action for him.” He clapped his hands and held them together in a grip that whitened his fingers. “It was exactly the same. An enormous self-respect. Whatever he believed in he had to embody absolutely.”
Marge put a hand to her face and laughed.
“Wow,” Dieter said. “Wow is right.” (Dog Soldiers, pp. 271, Kindle edition.)

Later Dieter/Kesey explains why it might have all gone wrong when he tried to change the world with mass LSD distribution:

He farted loudly and without embarrassment.
“Then it occurred to me that if I applied the American style—which I didn’t really understand—if I pushed a little, speeded things up a little, we might break into something really cosmic. The secular world was falling apart. Nobody knew what they were doing or what they wanted. There was a great ear open. Waiting for something.”
Dieter closed his eyes and put clasped hands over the top of his head.
“I was sitting up here hearing it! What they wanted”—with a thrust of his chin he indicated the world below—“I had. I knew! So I thought, a little push, a little shove, a little something extra to shake it loose. And I ended up as Doctor Dope.”
He opened his eyes and shrugged.
“It’s a fucked-up world. One’s a weak vessel.”

“Everybody came down.”
“Nobody came down,” Dieter shouted at her. “We disappeared without a trace. We haven’t been seen since.”
“Look at Ray,” Dieter said. “He’s trapped in a samurai fantasy—an American one. He has to be the Lone Ranger, the great desperado—he has to win all the epic battles single handed.” He stood up wearily. “It may not be a very original conception, but he’s quite good at it.”

 (Dog Soldiers, pp. 272, Kindle edition.)

Ray Hicks/Neal Cassady was the embodiment of all the hippie words and desires. He was never a junkie and he never sold out, but he did die young and his madness was almost pure.

Here are Ray Hick’s last orders for Deiter as their roles reverse:

“When you hear a round, light them up. Get on the mikes—I want a real deluge of weirdness. I want an opera.”
“Yes,” Dieter said, “I can see that. But in real life, you can’t pull it off.”
“Well then, fuck real life. Real life don’t cut no ice with me.” He transferred a couple of clips from the sea bag to his pockets.    (Dog Soldiers, pp. 290, Kindle edition.)

And here are our last glimpses of Ray Hicks/Neal Cassady (who famously died walking Mexican railroad tracks in 1968) as filtered through Robert Stone’s sensibilities:

He stopped and watched the mountains vibrate.
“You know what’s out there? Every goddamn race of shit jerking each other off. Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis, two hundred million rat-hearted cocksuckers in enormous cars. Rabbits and fish. They’re mean and stupid and greedy, they’ll fuck you for laughs, they want you dead. If you’re no better than them you might as well take gas. (Dog Soldiers, pp. 325, Kindle edition.)

And possibly Ray Hicks expires thinking last what Neal Cassady himself might have:

In the end, there was only the tracks. That’s enough, he said, to himself, I can dig tracks.
Out of spite, out of pride, he counted the crossties aloud. He counted hundreds and hundreds of them. When he had to stop, he leaned his head on his rifle and held to the blazing rail with his strong right hand. (Dog Soldiers, pp. 330, Kindle edition.)

A small but not insignificant change in the film version from the book is that at the end in the film Who’ll Stop the Rain, the heroin blows away in the desert wind, which seems a typical Hollywood pessimistic cum moralistic take. That is, the decision about what to do with the evil substance is taken from the Converses’ hands, so they are free to pursue their future (thanks to Hick’s self-sacrifice) bloodied but unbroken. In the book the dope is successfully snatched up by the surviving bent American operative and Mexican narc. It is their reward for treating it with the proper respect. Will they kill each other over it, if time and circumstances offer an opportunity, that is, maybe?

In the book, these words by John Converse serve as well as any summation:

“Nobody knows,” Converse told her confidently. “That’s the principle we were defending over there. That’s why we fought the war.” (Dog Soldiers, pp. 306, Kindle edition.)

Having been through the thrill and regret of use and abuse many times myself, the central fear that occurs at some point (after the glorious rush) is, did I push it too far this time. Even though I am not dead or have not killed, have I set in motion doom for myself and my loved ones, which is what I fear most of all. That is the question all dilettantes must ask themselves before it’s too late.

Finally, I offer this addenda from the Robert Stone interview in Paris Review No. 90:

Interviewer: There’s a lot of dope, and an epic amount of drinking in your books—

Stone: I can’t stop them from doing it. I just can’t. It’s getting ridiculous. I get laughed at for the volume of chemicals that gets consumed, the amount of dope and booze. And now this guy’s doing it again in my new book.

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