Book Review: In Print
Reviewed by Roger Gathman, Fri., July 23, 2004
The Dog Fighterby Marc Bojanowski
William Morrow, 304 pp., $23.95
There is a story that is as old as American literature. A man, an isolato, goes on a journey. He falls in with other men, but he is never part of them. The journey becomes its own mission. Violence flares. There is no happy ending.
This is the pattern of Moby-Dick and of Blood Meridian. In Bojanowski's first novel, the stylistic impress of the latter book is strong. As in McCarthy's novel, Bojanowski chooses to set his scenes of baroque slaughter in a culture where no bourgeois compunction sullies the lurid aesthetic: Mexico. Our unnamed narrator drifts from Veracruz at a young age, kills a man for a woman in Northern California, and ends up, in 1946, crossing the Sea of Cortez on a ferry bound for the town of Canción. It is a town ruled by a businessman named Cantana. Along with an anonymous group of American investors, Cantana is building a resort hotel in the hopes of making Canción a vacation spot. But the hotel is mysteriously sabotaged, and Cantana's name is spit upon, figuratively, in graffiti that appears around the town.
Our narrator is not a partisan for either side in this shadowy struggle. He works on the construction crew for the hotel, then as a sidekick to one of Cantana's enforcers, then as a dog fighter. The town, it appears, has a long tradition of pitting human beings against specially raised, ferocious canines in a bloodsport that ends with either the dog's or the dog fighter's death. At his first match, the narrator spots a woman with Cantana in the audience, falls in love with her, and determines to keep his own counsel and somehow wrest the woman away from the town's most powerful and dangerous businessman, even if it means killing him.
Bojanowski is good at vignettes: the scene on the ferry when the narrator wantonly kills the pet scorpion of a toothless beggar; the Canción dentist who extracts teeth like a circus showman, to the delight of the town's children who crowd his office to watch; the two old veterans of the Revolution who tell a story of a fantastic ambush in a desert gulch over drinks. By giving the narrator a love life, Bojanowski risks spoiling the classic pattern of his tale. Hollywood, for 80 years, has tried to merge the action movie and the romance, and it has never worked it is like combining a wedding and a bullfight. However, Bojanowski works his way around this to some extent by keeping the narrator from speaking to the obscure object of his desire until the very end of the book.
This is a well-constructed novel in the mythic vein that is very conscious of the path it has to tread. Bojanowski makes few mistakes. I'd definitely recommend it with one warning to the sensitive. If this book were a movie, they could not honestly put the disclaimer in the credits that "no animals were hurt in the course of this movie." The brutality wreaked against dogs is rather staggering. Their hind legs are snapped, their teeth are filed, their ribs are stamped on until they expel their innards through their mouths. I would quote, but ... you get the picture. There's a little too much Peckinpah with the pooches for my taste. To give him his due, Bojanowski warns us. A novel titled The Dog Fighter is not exactly aiming for the Humane Society book-of-the-month list.