Progress, Red in Tooth and Claw 

Debut novelist nimbly takes on Western expansion

Debut novelist nimbly takes on Western expansion

The Dog Fighter

By Marc Bojanowski (William Morrow, 291 pp., $23.95)

Fiction that seeks to deal with political issues is often guilty of not leaving enough to the imagination. Its message too often overwhelms its art, drawing attention to itself in an indecent display that is somewhat akin to dropping one's pants in public. In The Dog Fighter, a book that is inescapably political, debut novelist Marc Bojanowski occasionally fiddles with his fly but proves more than capable of tangling with a nasty and unforgiving subject without showing too much skin.

The global influence of Western capitalism has been most ably chronicled by writers with direct ties to the Third World. Novels by Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe and the like offer characters whose lives are suffused with politics by virtue of setting, their merciless themes all but unavoidable. So when an American novelist tells a story that takes place in a Mexican city on the cusp of Western-style development, the stakes are pretty damn high: Bojanowski could easily fall into a long line of wishy-washy Westerners, stretching from Jean-Paul Sartre to Bono. Instead, he offers a sensitive interpretation of our expansionist history that manages to be remorseful but not simplistic, brave but not self-righteous.

From the start, the central conflict of The Dog Fighter is between the primal impulse toward violence and the liberal impulse to resist the same. Bojanowski's unnamed narrator is raised under the influence of two men whose loyalty to these impulses sets them apart from each other. The boy's father is a doctor, an intellectual who preaches nonviolence and knowledge as power. But the boy's grandfather teaches him to value a more primitive brand of power. The old man tells him stories that ignite his imagination, about men who fought jaguars and snakes, stories that value blood and guts over books. "Guilt is what makes your father weak. My grandfather once said. Great strength does not feel for anything but itself." After the grandfather dies, his disapproving parents believe that the boy will escape his grandfather's influence, but his adolescent behavior is unusually sinister. When his mother dies during childbirth, the boy's faith in his father is broken, and he disappears to drift through California and Mexico, leaving in his wake stories that would do his grandfather proud.

The boy eventually arrives in Cancion, a "hidden city" in Baja California. Still young but in the body of a man, he finds work as a laborer on a hotel construction site. The hotel signals a drastic change for the city, which is suddenly of interest to American investors who want to cash in on Cancion's natural beauty. A shady foreman introduces the boy to the savage world of dog fighting, in which men with carpets wrapped around their left arm and metal claws strapped to their right hand fight trained dogs. The boy is immediately attracted to the glory he attaches to this endeavor, but soon loses his taste for what he recognizes as a vulgar game in which he is performing for crowds of wealthy businessmen: "I could not feel the yelling men with their hands on my arms and shoulders and backs surrounding me. But the sight of myself in the businessman's sunglasses with blood on my neck and chest filled me with shame." However, he becomes infatuated with the girlfriend of the hotel's wealthy developer—the only mistress in the surrounding crowd who does not cry when the dogs are killed—so he continues fighting the dogs to be near her.

The dog fighter occupies a unique place in Cancion society, one that makes him familiar with all parties in the coming conflict. His initial poverty gives him access to the traders, merchants and rabble that make up the majority of the population. But the boy's dog-fighting skill grants him the favor of the developer, who's experiencing some resistance from his countrymen. The hotel construction site is bombed and graffiti declaring "Cancion por la Cancioneros" in red paint appears throughout the city. Though he does not yet know it, the boy is already acquainted with the ringleaders of the resistance—one a seemingly wise poet who quite literally speaks for the masses, writing letters for the illiterate; the other a Che Guevara/Fagan character who trains the city's orphans in the twin arts of theft and resistance. In the clash that ensues between the inhabitants of the city and the businessmen who are challenging their way of life, the dog fighter finds himself manipulated by both sides, and for the first time his brute force fails him.

Bojanowski's narrative is masterful, combining endless strings of verb clauses with the occasional oddly placed prepositional phrase to mimic the dog fighter's poorly trained tongue. His Mexico is evocative of the menacing and noirish black and white of Frank Miller's Sin City or Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, and the book often recalls Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian in its depiction of a violent way of life on the verge of extinction. He fills this space with vivid characters, their terrible grins and gestures unforgettable. While rich in metaphor and nuance, often begging an allegorical reading that thankfully fails to take shape, the book is exceedingly readable and gripping, altogether convincing and always respectful of its material.

Like McCarthy before him, the innate violence of history is Bojanowski's guiding interpretive principal, but he stops short of Blood Meridian's nihilistic treatment of the bloody march. The violence that saturates his depiction of a city at odds with development is the literary manifestation of a post-industrial anxiety that is a distant cousin of White Guilt. It is a statement of recognition, not resignation. His dog fighter faces an opponent that can't be fended off—a violence that isn't wholly physical but exists at the core of what we call progress.

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