RUNNING DOG (1978) by Don DeLillo

DeLillio_Running-Dog_picadorDon DeLillo has a new book out but I don’t have it yet – so I am looking at one of his first, instead. A darkly comic conspiracy thriller, it involves murder, transvestitism, radical journalists, art dealers, a US Senator, the CIA, a smut merchant and Vietnamese hitmen, all on the hunt for a scabrous piece of long-lost Naziana. It is also an oblique satire on the acquisitive society, where the hunt for an object exhausts its pursuers until they find something else to fixate on – until that too is obtained.

The following review is offered as part of Bev’s Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt;  Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her Pattinase blog.

“A woman with a past. Isn’t that what makes us interesting? For men, it’s a lack of a recorded past that proves so fascinating. Women, no. It’s the shadows behind us that do the trick.”

Moll Robbins is a journalist for the once chic radical rag of the title, investigating a senator with a penchant for erotic art. She bumps into his buyer, Selvy, who is a trained killer, and with whom she has a brief affair before he goes on the run after becoming the target of his employers, unhappy about the romantic dalliance.  They work for a secret CIA off-shoot known as ‘Radial Matrix’ – a name chosen precisely for its lack of meaning. We then follow’s Moll and Selvy’s cross-country adventures as they get caught up in the search for a stag movie said to have been filmed in Hitler’s bunker in the dying days of the war and featuring the Führer himself, now desired by a bizarre coteries of creepy cutthroats.

“Before pop art, there was such a thing as bad taste. Now there’s kitsch, schlock, camp and porn.”

DeLillo-Running-Dog-hbI can’t say I particularly enjoyed this book, while admiring the wit and skill with which it is undeniably presented. Clearly not intended to be taken that seriously, the plot is largely dispensable, though to my surprise we do ultimately get to see what is on the long-lost film. What we get instead of a coherent story are a series of comedic scenes, most of which are amusing in their own way, but also usually overlong, often failing, albeit to a degree deliberately, to mesh and reach any conclusion. As with so many books of the era, and I’m thinking here of some of the works of Foster Wallace, Tom Robbins and Thomas Pynchon, we are presented with a journey narrative which goes out of its way to not reach a destination.

To Selvy, guns and their parts amounted to an inventory of personal worth.

While one expects to have basic genre conventions thwarted if not exactly mocked in the 70s serious counter-culture novel mode, what I found disappointing, and ultimately so unrewarding was the incessant banter between its characters, which to me was always forced and unconvincing and, fatally, always cut from the same linguistic template. The result is that whoever is speaking tends to sound the same, playing verbal games and indulging in verbal tics to avoid getting to the point. Which i guess, sort of is the point, but this game became, to me, ultimately self-defeating and wearisome.

“Fascinating, yes. An interesting word. From the Latin fascinus. An amulet shaped like a phallus. A word progressing from the same root as the word ‘fascism.'”

With its deliberate lack of plot focus (though various rather depressing conclusions are reached at the end of the treasure hunt), and the monotonous tone of the dialogue, I found myself admiring the intelligence of its author but never really liking this one. Shame that.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘ghostly figure’ category:


***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2016 Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt, Don DeLillo, New York. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to RUNNING DOG (1978) by Don DeLillo

  1. Colin says:

    Hmm, this sounds different, if nothing else. One of those books you need to be in the right mood for perhaps?

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Hmmm…I’m afraid this is probably not for me, Sergio, although your excellent review most certainly was. I know what you mean about the journey as opposed to the destination. But I personally prefer more overall focus. And banter does get tiresome. I appreciate your candor about this one.

  3. I’ve had mixed results reading Don DeLillo. Like you, I wasn’t impressed with RUNNING DOG. I liked LIBRA and UNDERWORLD a lot more.

    • I would agree about Libra (though it was a long time ago) but could never quite get the guts to try Underworld – my brother felt massively lets down and still wants DeLillo to give him all those hours back 🙂

  4. Sounds dreadful, and the book covers don’t help. Thanks for the warning, I’ll pass.

  5. Todd Mason says:

    I’ve read little of DeLillo, and at first glance at your review I thought, hmm, sounds less self-indulgent than what I have read. Not so much, eh?
    David Foster Wallace is definitely next gen after DeLillo and perhaps 1.5 gens after Robbins…and certainly two after Pynchon, who presumably was a major influence on the other perhaps excluding Robbins. Pynchon also a better writer, by my lights.

    Interesting choice. Glad you wrote it up.

  6. Yvette says:

    I’ve never any books by this author, though I’ve heard his name out and about in the world. I probably won’t read this. But thanks anyway for the review, which, as always, I enjoyed reading.

  7. Matt Paust says:

    I started reading your review a tad nervously, Sergio, fearing you might have liked the novel and undercut my longstanding reluctance to read anything by DeLillo, suspecting him of being hugely overrated by the New York literary establishment, as with Franzen, another “star” I’ve avoided even thinking about trying. Thanks for allowing me to keep my perhaps somewhat irrational prejudice unsullied. Read only Robbins’s first couple of novels, and found them mildly entertaining, if a tad self-conscious, and have paid no attention at all to David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, tho, fascinated me for years, but I haven’t read anything of his since Vineland, which I didn’t especially like. I’ve had a remaindered copy of Mason & Dixon in my library for at least a decade–unopened. Some day, maybe…

  8. tracybham says:

    I don’t know much about this author and it looks like this is not the place to start. I will admit that those covers would have turned me off.

    • Not a ringing endorsement from me I realise – a very interesting modernist author all the same, albeit with story usually low on his list of priorities, one has to admit …

  9. I haven’t read this one, and you haven’t sold it to me, but I did like White Noise and others. Like you, have been *meaning* to read Underworld. One of these days…

  10. Sergio, I was beginning to wonder where this book was going, that is if it was, in fact, going anywhere. The novel sounds offbeat and the writer seems to have pulled it off, at least for those readers favourably inclined to read unconventional books.

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