Don DeLillo’s sixth novel, published in 1978. I borrowed a pretty wild looking first edition from my local library.
3 out of 5 stars.
Do you know DeLillo? Does he need an introduction? I suspect most people have heard of him but possibly not read his work. He’s most famously the author of:
White Noise (1985): In my top five favorite books. DeLillo combines all of his elements and themes correctly in this one – humor, biting satire, engaging characters. The plot taps into human fears, paranoia, and our relationship with technology, history and each other. It still feels modern thirty years on. Even if you’ve disliked other DeLillo, White Noise is worth a look if you have any interest in fiction and literature. Which I assume you do if you’re reading this.
Libra (1988): A fictionalized version of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life. DeLillo does a competent job combining research and fiction but ultimately, this one was very hard to get through. The characters were kept at arm’s length – you could see their actions but never felt any connection; a common problem in DeLillo’s work.
Underworld (1997): An incredible, ambitious work of fiction spanning decades and including an enormous cast of vivid, living characters. I read Underworld shortly after finishing Infinite Jest and the two feel like companion pieces, though Underworld succeeds in places where Jest fails. (This is a conversation for another day but, in short, while I respect Infinite Jest enormously as an author, I was frustrated as a reader.)
So: Running Dog. The plot centers around attempts by several groups to gain possession of a home movie which supposedly contains pornographic footage from Hitler’s bunker. No one knows if the film truly exists or what is actually on it (Hitler himself? His aides? Prostitutes and soldiers?). The synopsis on the flap gave me a White Noise meets Vonnegut’s Mother Night vibe.
(And if you’re thinking that it also sounds a bit like Infinite Jest, welcome to the party. David Foster Wallace greatly admired DeLillo and the more I read of DeLillo, the more Infinite Jest seems like some strange love letter to his work.)
The first thing to say about DeLillo, always: He is an incredible writer on a literal, functional level. Like Capote, DeLillo is in control of each sentence, paragraph, chapter. No hesitation, no waffling. He is in full command of his writer’s toolbox. The downside to DeLillo (and I’ll pull Capote in on this one, too) is a failure to engage the reader’s emotions.
I’m going to share some beautifully constructed passages with you. But I felt no connection with any of the characters (except a police officer in the prologue who, unfortunately, never appeared in the story again). Even as the plot increased its intrigue and tension, I did not care about the fates of anyone involved or even how the plot would resolve.
She wore jeans and a bulky sweater, a tall lean woman who walked in a sort of lazy prowl.
“A thing isn’t fully erotic unless it has the capacity to move.”
 Very sparse stage direction; no emotion or thought. It works very well, even suggests a wry sort of humor.
Lightborne nodded to indicate a measure of absorption in his own commentary. He went to the refrigerator and got a box of Graham crackers. He offered them around. No takers. He sat back down.
 Going back to my fixation on the word “that” (a common theme in my reading this summer, I suspect): DeLillo avoids the word unless it is absolutely necessary for clarity. I would be tempted to use “that” in the final sentence below.
The quality of transience appealed to Selvy. It had the advantage of reducing one’s accountability, somehow. If you were always ten minutes from departure, you couldn’t be expected to answer to the same moderating precepts other people followed.
 “Although” is a great word. I never think to use it. I must add it to the toolbox. Much better in some situations than “even though”, which I overuse.
Lomax was pudgy, his hair mod-cut, graying a bit at the temples. He liked to pat and smooth and lightly stroke his hair, although it was never mussed. He was dressed for golf today, Selvy noticed.
 In this case, we have a long sentence/thought and “that” helps to break it into clarified pieces.
No one else in the Senator’s office was aware that Selvy had been hired not to help direct the paper flow but to do Percival’s art buying.
 Good, strong words here to avoid settling with a boring: “He walked.” And, my God, this entire paragraph is a single, extraordinarily well-managed sentence. This is what I’m talking about when I say DeLillo is in complete control of his words and tools:
He wheeled right, strode past an enormous mahogany clock topped by a bellicose eagle, made another right toward a flight of stairs, and as though by hidden signal the reporters stopped pursuing and dispersed, leaving Moll to follow alone, right into an elevator reserved for senators and staff, out into another corridor, around a corner, keeping about seven feet behind him, just so he’d know she was there.
 Q: The title of this book is the name of the magazine Moll works for. Moll alludes that it’s also from a saying: “Capitalist lackeys and running dogs”? (on page 112, it’s called “The Hanoi line then current. The familiar taunt.”) Where does this come from?
A: Running dog is a literal translation into English of a Chinese/communist pejorative meaning lackey or lapdog.
As they spoke Moll had a distant sense of Memorable Event Taking Place, and could hear herself describing it to friends.
He took a brush out of his white jacket and moved it through the air behind Percival’s shoulders and midback, eyeing Moll for the first time, at least openly. It was a look, combined with a haughty shrug, that said, I don’t know what you’re doing here but this is the wrong place to be doing it.
 As much as DeLillo has complete control over his words, he often makes it very confusing as to who is speaking. He (unlike our friend, Kurt Vonnegut) is not a fan of dialogue attributes at all. DeLillo’s characters exchange dry, deadpan statements which make them difficult to distinguish. John Fowles has this problem, too (this is not to say I do not love Fowles. Don’t worry, we’ll get to Fowles…). Are these authors making a statement about the useless nature of most conversation (it ultimately doesn’t matter who is speaking because no real information is being conveyed)? Even if this is the case, I need to know who is saying what to fully engage as a reader. I dislike having to track back to figure out where I am in an exchange. This one was a challenge:
“What do you want to do?”
“Except it’s impossible (…)”
“You know where we can play?”
“Last night in the cab after I dropped you off we went by some courts (…)”
“Do you have an extra racket?”
“Nobody plays tennis in Central Park (…)”
“Come on, get dressed.”
 Nice reference. If you’ve never seen it, watch. Great soundtrack by Pink Floyd during this scene. (And the year was 1970.)
“I remember seeing Zabriskie Point about then and that scene at the end when the house blows up and all those brightly colored products go exploding through the air in slow motion. God, that made my whole year. That was the high point of whatever year that was.”
Her face was a near circle, though pretty. She was somewhat broad of figure, maybe thirty years old, and spoke in an accent that was pleasant to hear even in its odder journeys through certain words.
“Your husband didn’t die under what I’d call normal circumstances, Mrs. Ludecke.”
“When is murder normal?”
 Here’s something else that crosses over into Infinite Jest.
“Someone’s come up with a plaster-and-polystyrene copy of a Bernini I’ve always admired.”
“Saint Teresa in Ecstasy.”
This statue plays a huge role in Infinite Jest. I’m not claiming that David Foster Wallace latched onto it because of this passing reference in Running Dog, but it’s another interesting note between the two.
He took a shower and waited for time to pass. He didn’t mind the waiting. Somewhere to be at 1500. No one he knew, or might talk to in the intervening period, would ever suspect the nature of his business. It was carried on beneath the level of ordinary life. This is why it made no difference where he lived. It was all the same, more coloration for the true life, for the empty meditations, the routine, the tradecraft, the fine edge to be maintained in preparation for – he didn’t know what. In preparation for what?
“Where are you from?” Moll asked.
“Originally, lately, whatever.”
He got some ice cubes from the bucket on the liquor cabinet and carried them back in his left hand, watching them slide into his glass one by one. Streetlights were on outside. No further sound of children playing. Moll watched him drink quietly. He finished one, started another.
“I like tall women,” the Senator said.
 Unknown references: Balthus. The Kangra school. Botero (“with his neckless immensities”). Egon Schiele (“with his unloved nudes”). Hans Bellmer. Tom Wesselmann. Clara Tice.
(all listed on p.80)
Balthus: Balthasar Klossowski de Rola. Polish-French modern artist (1908 – 2001). Provocative paintings, some of young girls.
The Kangra school: (Kangra painting) The pictorial art of Kangra-Lambagraon, a former princely state located in the Punjab region. The focal theme is the erotic sentiment.
Botero: Fernando Botero Angulo (b.1932) is a figurative artist and sculptor from Medellin, Colombia. His figures are cartoonish; large, round heads, small features, thick bodies.
Egon Schiele: Austrian painter (1890 – 1918). Protégé of Gustav Klimt. Major figurative painter. His work is noted for its intensity and raw sexuality.
Hans Bellmer: German artist (1902 – 1975). Best known for the life-sized pubescent female dolls he produced in the mid-1930’s. Also considered a Surrealist photographer.
Tom Wesselmann: American artist (1931 – 2004). Associated with the Pop Art movement. Worked in painting, collage and sculpture.
Clara Tice: American avant-garde illustrator and artist (1888 – 1973). Known as “The Queen of Greenwich Village.”