Inspired by Stone’s interactions with the so-called Merry Pranksters led by author Ken Kesey in the 1960s, Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers
(1974) depicts the dark underbelly of the 1960s as the counter-culture movement dissolved into chaos amid social change and the Vietnam War.
John Converse, an American journalist, sits down on a bench in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Carrying a large briefcase, he makes awkward conversation with a woman on the bench next to him whom he finds attractive. He reads a letter from his wife detailing her activities in his absence, revealing that Converse is a journalist who has traveled to Vietnam in the hope of finding material he can turn into a book or a play. Though he has had some success as a writer, he finds himself working for his father-in-law, who publishes a tabloid newspaper. Judging himself harshly for his lack of strength in pursuing his dreams, Converse hopes the trip to Vietnam will change his fortunes.
Converse despairs, realizing he has already spent a considerable amount of time in the country working on his project with nothing to show for it. After discussing god and evil with the woman, Converse takes a taxi to meet with Charmian; she sells him a large quantity of heroin. Converse has agreed to smuggle the heroin back to the United States. Charmian, with a shadowy past and many contacts in the political and law-enforcement worlds, has put Converse in touch with the corrupt agents he will sell the drugs to. Converse wishes to impress Charmian as a tough and worldly man who can pull off a complex plot to smuggle drugs into the United States to fuel his own vanity. He inspects the heroin for quality. He believes he will be able to earn $40,000 for his efforts.
Converse contacts Ray Hicks, former US Marine and merchant marine sailor he met in Vietnam. He tells Hicks the plan: Hicks will hide the heroin on the ship he crews on; when he arrives in California, Hicks will bring the heroin to Converse’s wife, Marge, who works as a ticket seller at a pornographic movie theater. Converse has misgivings about this partnership because Hicks appears unstable; Converse privately believes Hicks might be mentally unbalanced, and he fears his temper. Obsessed with the counter-culture movement, Hicks often states that things have “gone funny” in the States. However, the plan goes forward: Hicks hides the drugs, and his ship arrives in California.
Upon debarking from the ship, however, Hicks realizes he has been made and is being followed. Paranoid, he assumes immediately that Converse has double-crossed him, intending to kill him to take the money for himself. Hicks knows that Converse thinks he is strange. Hicks is attacked by two men who identify themselves as federal agents, but he breaks free. He meets Marge, who lives under the constant influence of barbiturates, and they flee with the drugs. Hicks and Marge quickly forge their own partnership, deciding to cut Converse out of the plan altogether and sell the drugs themselves. Antheil, a drug enforcement agent pursues them, staying on their trail as they race across Southern California. Hicks and Marge begin using the heroin they are carrying, becoming addicted, and losing their final connections to reality.
Returning home, Converse discovers how badly things have gone wrong. Antheil hunts for Converse as well, capturing him shortly after his arrival in San Francisco. As Antheil and his crew torture Converse, burning him on a kitchen stove, Antheil makes it clear that he has no intention of making arrests and impounding the drugs; rather he intends to kill everyone involved and sell the drugs himself, using his connections and experience in the criminal world. Converse, a fearful man obsessed with and terrified of death, quickly surrenders, becoming a willing participant in the pursuit of Hicks, his wife, and the heroin.
Hicks and Marge flee into Mexico where they take shelter with Dieter, whom Hicks regards as his mentor, a self-styled guru living in an isolated, monastery-like building on top of a mountain. Antheil tracks them to this location and takes Converse to the building. Hicks does not intend to go quietly, however, and a shootout erupts between him and the officers. Hicks is shot but gets away, only to die a short distance away, the heroin still in his backpack. Converse grabs Marge in the chaos and the two flee.