Don Delillo’s Running Dog starts with a dreamlike 2nd person sequence that works as a quite splendid introduction to the world of conspiracy and violence that the next 245 pages will go over with hallucinating detail. You won’t find normal people here. Not after dark, on these streets, under the ancient warehouse canopies. Of course you know this. This is the point. Instead, Delillo presents a post-Vietnam America in the throes of its own brokenness, an America of dashed hopes and increasing levels of random violence, of paranoia and technological and human conspiracy.The novel assembles a cast of equally broken characters: a female journalist who once shared home and bed with a bomb-throwing radical, a Vietnam vet now working for a covert government agency, a Senator with an art collection he’d like to keep secret and a self-defined warlord with dreams of corporate glory. These characters walk in and out of each others lives in a series of sexually tense encounters, intense verbal sparring (dialogue is one of Delillo’s greatest skills), and coded meetings. There is a pornographic film that somehow everyone is interested in but no one really wants. The conspiracy surrounding the film – supposedly made inside Hitler’s bunker just before the END – unites them all as they strut around wearing their wounded pasts with a sort of appalled pride. But the novel is really suggesting that their consuming paranoia surrounding the film and who wants it or who has it, is simply an organic by-product of what society has become. What is real are their reactions to that paranoia, which let loose a chain of violent events that cannot, once they’ve been launched, be stopped.
Delillo positions his characters in confrontation with late 70’s schizophrenic America; the world is a damaged vessel, and that reality should supercede any personal considerations. The journalist and the Vietnam vet are allowed to have satisfying sex but never to take satisfaction in each other or consider creating personal bonds. The Senator wallows in drunken melodrama and the hoarding of static representations of physical pleasure while the warlord, the only real power figure in the novel, remains enmeshed inside his social imaginary of gratuitous violence and deep-seated misogyny.
Despite its grim outlook and spy-novel skeleton, Running Dog achieves a sort of raw beauty with its incisive and spare prose. When all is said and done and a virtually unknown character, a perfect example of the broken everyman, surveys the remains of the story’s penultimate violent act, Delillo gives us the novel’s only offering of hope: The land was a raked surface. The power of storms to burnish and renew, he thought, had never been more clearly evident. The sky was flawless. Things existed. The day was scaled to the pure tones of being and sense.