Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise and Outerbridge Reach

The Library of America’s collection Robert Stone features three novels by the titular author. Included are Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Outerbridge Reach. It is an impressive little volume. Filled with extras on top of these books, the volume certainly has the production values one has come to expect from Library of America, though the novels inside present some interesting choices.

A Flag for Sunrise is a sf piece in a way, taking place in a fictitious nation undergoing a fictitious revolution. Narratively and stylistically the story is a hybrid of the literary novel and a thriller, as a mostly out of the game intelligence asset goes to a potential job even after he claims he will not be involved. At the same time a small Catholic organization has been ordered out of their present residence, but do not seem in a particular rush to leave, even as their situation gets darker. 

 It seems likely that there is going to be a betrayal, because betrayals appear so often in such novels, particularly the betrayal of the ‘spy’, and yet in this story the betrayals are more personal, and even the idea of the femme fatale is subverted by the nun Justin. She knows she is good looking, and has some very nontraditional views for a nun. She is also part of the political situation in a fairly active, if quiet, way.

At the same time the old tired priest Egan finds himself constantly surrounded with different horrifying individuals, objects, and situations. He muddles through, a drunken old man who has homosexual desires against the wishes of his Church, and attempts to make the best of the situation. He is unwell, though whether this is because of his alcoholism, despair, or some other health complication is not expanded upon in detail. The Father discusses his strong disagreements with the Church on various subjects, as well as his ennui in regard to the situation in the country. He finds himself constantly surrounded by Death, with a child killer running around, members of the police disposing of bodies illegally, and again that fermenting revolution in the air. The number of people who wouldn’t suffer from this is very low. In spite of his flaws, Egan comes across as sympathetic. 

In spite of the multifaceted nature of many of these characters, at times the book can be anything but subtle. The country invented for this novel is Compostela. In other words, in a fit of insanity, the nation is named after rotting refuse. This seems a risky choice, and the fact that most of the focus goes to characters from outside the country makes this decision a little odd. Yet ultimately the characters from within the nation are not inherently more corrupt than those who are not, and everyone ends up a shade of grey.

Indeed one of the consistent elements of this volume is that the longer a reader spends with a character the more some glimmer of humanity, even merely guilt, will leak into their portrayal. A jaded individual will do something proud, a heroic action is foolish whatever the intent, and mutual loathing begets a strange shared humanity. The effect is undeniable, and unexpected. While not for everyone this story does an impressive job of making one feel sympathy, even momentarily, for seemingly horrible people.

Dog Soldiers on the other hand is much less clear in any genre elements. On the surface there is a definite crime story in the drug smuggling the plot is focused on, however, chances are high that readers would hesitate to put the volume cleanly into that category.

The protagonist, such as there is one, is a disillusioned journalist, often working for tabloids, who cannot seem to catch a real break beyond gainful employment and a recurring chance at bigger things, and as a result decides to smuggle drugs. He is, in short, an idiot. He has opportunities galore and wastes them, as well as the reader’s sympathy. That said, the book does not seem to be trying to evoke excessive sympathy, instead giving a particular depiction of Vietnam as a strange and pitiable kind of hell, and the USA, for those who have returned, darkened by the changes in them. 

It is certainly an old idea, violence begetting violence, yet here there is a broader nature to the concept, a more general societal corruption as opposed to a cycle of revenge. Further, the use of the drug conflict as an outcropping of the military illustrates the interconnectedness of these very different conflicts.

This book is the less odd of the two to a reader today, although the large influence it has had on the American literary landscape could easily explain that. The casual vulgarity, mixing of the absurdist with the deadly serious, and black humor have all become common enough (particularly when dealing with the Vietnam War) and as a result it will certainly seem the less unusual of the stories. It is extremely well crafted nonetheless, characters retaining a believability that is not always found in such works.

Supplementary material in the book,includes a timeline of related events and detailed notes both on how the texts were chosen, and the texts themselves. These can be quite useful given some of the esoteric information from the era that comes up within each story. While not the most in-depth extras that Library of America has ever included, they most certainly are appreciated.

Overall Robert Stone’s work proves difficult to define, simultaneously feeling literary and far too tied to the thriller genre to truly fit in the former category. It is a strange combination of elements that come together to effectively produce such darkly humorous works, and effective to one who enjoys the style. Thanks to the supplementary materials and price it is very easy to recommend this particular volume to anyone looking for any of these novels, or works by Robert stone in general.

(Library of America, 2019)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.