SOMEONE'S SELLING pornographic movies of Hitler, and someone in Washington wants to buy them. In New York, "there is swamp fever in the air," and customers line up [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Storytelling."
In [WORD ILLEGIBLE] there is a chimpanzee sitting at the bar, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] suit with flared trousers. And heading west [WORD ILLEGIBLE] hitmen in sunglasses and windbreakers [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
[WORD ILLEGIBLE] world of DonLillo's superbly energetic [WORD ILLEGIBLE] novel, Running Dog - a world in which nothing is as it seems, and everything seems all right.
Spies, journalists and politicians combine and connive Lust, technology, espionage, capitalism, politics and violence overlap and coalesce: "One doesn't support the other. One is the other." It is a world in which conspiracies are as common as bus stops. In which everyone is supsect, and even the police are confused - "All this dressing up . . . you can't go by the clothes anyone."
Paranoia is the plot, and DeLillo, like Thomas Pynchon before him, knows how to make the most of it. Few story lines in contemporary fiction have proven as successful as the tale of an unwaitting citizen who stumbles onto a conspiracy too involved to comprehend and too powerful to affect. In a way, this book is DeLillo's Crying of Lot 49 , but without the redemptive humor of Pynchon's brilliant satire. DeLillo is slightly surreal, but grimly serious.
So is his anti-heroine, Moll Robbins, ex-radical turned reporter for Running Dog magazine. Assigned to write a series on the marketing of sex in America, she comes across Lightbourne, aging, idiosyncratic proprietor of the Cosmic Erotics gallery in New York, a broker in sexual art who has gotten word of a highly unusual item: a movie of Nazi orgies in Hitler's bunker in Berlin, made in the closing days of the war.
This revelation entangles her in an ever-gummier web of associations with a United States senator, a CIA man, a contractor of clandestine services, and a host of gangsters, goons and government types.
It also enmeshes her with Glen Selvy, the young spy with "double cover" whose job on Capitol Hill cannot conceal all of his training (he undresses, Moll notices, "with a curious efficiency, as though it was a drill that might one day save his life") and who soon becomes a target of the agency he serves. But not before he breaks the rules and puts Moll onto the biggest story of her life: the highly placed person who apparently will stop at nothing to acquire the Hitler movie.
This alone would make a powerful story, but it spreads even wider. Moll's editor, Grace Delaney - a sarcastic, embittered alcoholic whose theory of society is that "All men are criminals. All women are Mafia wives" - is involved with Lomax, the golf-loving spy-master who controls Selvy but is in turn dependent upon Earl Mudger, a ruthless intelligence genius and systems analyst whose company. Radial Matrix, contracts out espionage wet work using a gangster network, as well as a number of single-minded Vietnamese refugees who speak broken English and perform with nefarious efficiency.
"'What you have in Mudger,'" one character says, "'is that combination of business drives and lusts and impulses with police techniques, with ultrasophisticated skills of detection, surveillance, extortion, terror and the rest of it."
But even Mudger has to rely on legmen like Vinny Talerico from Toronto, one half of whose face is paralyzed into "chilled meat," or Kidder, the factotum in Texas. In search of the Hitler film, the two of them torrorize 26-year-old porno distributor and smut king Richie Armbrister, who lives in a downtown warehouse in Dallas with his bodyguards and silenced attack dogs.
Strange to tell, all of these characters, with their interlocking perversities and perplexities, find their way into and out of the itinerant narrative, which wanders across the country but generally follows the escape route of Glen Selvy, who has come to realize that all his schooling and discipline amounts to little more than "a course in dying. In how to die violently. In how to be killed by your own side, in secret, no hard feelings. . . . All this time. It was a ritual preparation."
As he flees toward the ultrasecret guerrilla training camp in the South-west, Selvy runs through a number of burrows in the national wasteland, and DeLillo captures them all with imagery sharp as a boning knife: from a frenetic Times Square, with its "Process evangelists in dark capes" and "skinhead Krishna chanters in saffron robes and tennis sneakers" to the eerie void and painterly calm of the desert near the Rio Grande.
As the scope of the story expands, Selvy's transgression or the Hitler movies become as irrelevant per se as the kind of fruit eaten at the fall of man. What matters instead is that, once set in motion, the forces of retribution descend on Selvy and the others, revealing the awful fury of jealous powers and giant prerogatives. As Moll reflects, "the logical extension of business is murder."
Although it is hardly obtrusive in this richly understated, episodic but strangely coherent novel, DeLillo's message is very clear.
"'When technology reaches a certain level, people begin to feel like criminals,'" Mudger explains. "'Someone is after you, the computer maybe, the machinepolice . . . Devices make us pliant . . . It's the presence alone, the very fact, the superabundance of technology, that makes us feel we're committing crimes. . . . What enormous weight. What complex programs. And there's no one to explain it to us.'"
Some sell out or give in, like Grace and Lomax; some remain forever confused, like Lightborne and Moll; and some few, like Selvy, begin to feel trapped in a mechanical destiny in which "choice is a subtle form of disease," and the unforgiving Furies are never far behind.
If the conspiracy novel has become enormously popular, it has become correspondingly difficult to write well. Norman Mailer has pointed out that paranoia becomes common sense as the world goes insane; each morning's headlines threaten to outreach the fantasy and outrage of fiction.
But Don DeLillo, who has proven himself a master of the menace in everyday situations with such frightening novels as Great Jones Street and Players , has done it again. We are lulled by the ease of his craft into regarding the most gore-sodden horrors as natural outcomes, the most malicious liasons as sensible partnerships.
And somewhere along the way, we cross the line between shock and curiosity, almost willing to believe that "Tension's an edge, that must be it, a goading force, a heightener. It betokens something good. May be there's a wild time in the works. What do you think? Who knows? Some all-out supersonics."