Thursday, September 27, 2012

Running Dog - Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo (1936-)

Sometime in the late 1970's when the residue of the Vietnam war can still be felt, when the Warren report is still alive and being combed through word by word, a small time erotica sales man, Lightborne, gets wind of what could potentially rock the industry: a pornographic film rumored to star Hitler himself. The countless grotesque and unimaginable sordid details this find could reveal is almost too much to hope for and Lightborne shops the rumour around looking for potentially interested parties.

One interested party happens to be a Senator, who unwilling to reveal himself and his predilection for bazaar erotic art has hired a man named Glen Selvy to be his buyer. Unbeknownst to the Senator, Selvy is a double (or triple?) agent hired by a clandestine covert branch of the military, Radial Matrix, to collect incriminating data on the Senator. As he lives out his daily life of espionage and intrigue, filled with rules and rituals, living in a hovel, completely devoted to his work, he meets Moll Robbins, a reporter for Running Dog magazine.

Running Dog, a once radical but now fairly mainstream magazine, has assigned Moll to get the scoop on the Senator, there's nothing that the American public loves more than a dirty sex scandal of sorts involving politicians or celebrities:

In the words of the Senator himself " celebrity was a phenomenon related to religious mysticism... Celebrity brings out the cosmic potential in people. And that couldn't be anything but good. What was the word? Salutary. That couldn't be anything but salutary."

And what could be better, or more intriguing than a celebrity with a hidden smut collection? Perhaps even funded with tax payer dollars! It's almost too good to be true. As Moll delves into her research, somehow Selvy finds her apartment and they begin one of those liaisons found only in literature, with lots of whiskey drinking, the periodic changing of clothes and an inhuman amount of sex, that leaves all of us non-literary characters wondering if our lives are somewhat lacking in passion.

The similarities between Libra and White Noise are abundant. The endless quest for something elusive, whether it is the cure for the fear of death, a country that will appreciate your sacrifice or a historical porno featuring the Fuhrer. Where Libra felt like organized chaos, there was ultimately an idea that propelled them all forward, the disillusionment of JFK and the American dream, in Running Dog  there is no organization, just chaos. In a way it seems like something Tom Clancy and John Updike would come up with in a brainstorming session run by Suzanne Collins.

Slowly the plots begin to unravel and the one dimensional characters begin to make their exits. Running Dog, this once radical magazine that would stop at nothing to reveal the corruption and lies swirling around us, is little more that a public interest magazine. The magazine producer/editor Grace, refuses to publish Moll's findings and winds up in bed having pillow talk with the head honcho of Radial Matrix...Selvy, after getting on the wrong side of Radial Matrix and realizing his strict rules are beginning to slip, finds himself being chased by a pair of Vietnamese. At one point along his run, he meets up with a girl whom he befriends, she asks him what his heritage is and he tells her he's Indian. She doubts him and asks if he's Indian what his Indian name is...there's a pause and then Selvy says: "Running Dog."

Running dog is a literal translation of the Chinese/ Korean communist pejorative that means lackey or lapdog, an unprincipled person who helps or flatters another more powerful. It is derived from the eagerness with which a dog will respond to its owner when called for even a scrap of food. While the magazine attempts to use this name ironically, they are little more than puppets obeying the laws of gravity. The realization that Selvy deservedly is a Running Dog, little more than a lackey or lap dog chasing his master's scraps, is the moment he accepts his fate, his disillusionment and his inevitable death.

"He realized he didn't need the blanket he was wrapped in. The cold wasn't getting to him in that way. In a way that called for insulation. It was perfect cold. The temperature at which things happen on an absolute scale. All that incoherence. Selection, election, option, alternative. All behind him now...choice is a subtle form of disease."

The post-Vietnam world is one were guerrilla warfare has moved into the homes of its citizens, the enemy is indistinguishable, elusive and relentless. There is no clarity who or what the bad guy is, only a vague sense of disorganized evil. But when the most comprehensible evil moves into the mainstream, when Hitler porn is the hidden treasure...where is the normalizing level of morality. Who are the good guys? Do bad guys even exist in a post-modern world where everything is relative?

"Vietnam, in more ways than one, was a war based on hybrid gibberish. But Mudger could understand the importance of this on the most basic of levels, the grunt level, where the fighting man stood and where technical idiom was often the only element of precision, the only true beauty, he could bring with him into the realms of ambiguity."

In some of the reviews I read they described this book as funny...maybe if they meant funny in the sense that life is meaningless and we're all in the process of slowly dying? Although this book, like the others I've read were engrossing and easy to lose myself in...I would not describe this as funny, nor would it be my favorite DeLillo book I've read thus far.


  1. Allow me a brief comment on the examples just above. DeLillo is concerned with language and words with an obsession that borders on insanity. Obviously it matters very greatly where the quotation marks go. In all his work DeLillo tries as hard as any writer can to put the ineffable into words. In paragraph 4.1212 of theTractatus Logico Philosophicus Ludwig Wittegenstein wrote "What can be shown, cannot be said." DeLillo is manifestly concerned with this idea in all his work; the most lighthearted, obvious treatment of it occurs in End Zone where Billy Mast is actually taking a course in "the untellable."

  2. He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.He pins her ankles to continue his kissing. Slightly doughy, matronly ankles. Green veins on her insteps. Nice remembered locker room taste. Cheap vanilla.


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