The Dog Fighter
By Marc Bojanowski (William Morrow, $23.95)
And you thought Amores Perros was bloody. Though set in Mexico during the 1930s and '40s, this auspicious debut novel is by a young American who's never actually stepped into the ring to combat canines, their teeth filed down to razor-tipped fangs, armed with a towel on one arm and a pair of metal claws on the other. I'm not sure the sport actually existed on the Baja Peninsula of that era, nor does "the hidden city" of Cancíon need to be real. Author Marc Bojanowski is more concerned with mythic old Mexico, the Mexico of Hemingway and John Huston, than with its gaudy, corrupt, tourist-infested present.
It is in this purer, imagined past that the unnamed Dog Fighter narrates his story. He relates his privileged youth in another city before he came to Cancíon; we know he somehow survived both towns to tell his tale. As a wizened old man, he's earned the right to rewrite or embellish his story as he likes. Mainly, he pares it down, hones it, like a knife. The Dog Fighter is a minimalist novel that arrives like something already old, its pages thumb-worn and blurry, altered and distilled by many tellings. Bojanowski compares the various human stories that make up Cancíon to individual songs (or canciones, in Spanish), and the Dog Fighter's account echoes like a folk song—like "The Ballad of Stagger Lee," say—whose truth comes from feelings, not facts. Our mighty, oversized hero is like Paul Bunyan, only bathed in blood.
After leaving behind his violence-loving grandfather and more civilized, but failed, physician father, the teenaged Dog Fighter wanders and works, eventually killing a man in the States. Deported, he finds work constructing a hotel on the then-undeveloped Baja Peninsula. The place, overseen by mysterious local gangster Cantana, will cater to American tourists, ruining Cancíon forever. At first, the oblivious, apolitical Dog Fighter doesn't care; he's a lummox pursuing money and fame against dogs in the ring—a local custom held monthly beneath the full moon. Then he falls for Cantana's green-eyed mistress, which sets the plot in motion.
As in any enduring folk song, however, the Dog Fighter's destiny never appears less than predetermined. On the one side, there is Cantana, eyes hidden by dark glasses, who tries to recruit the Dog Fighter into his mob. On the other, there are a poet and a pool-hall proprietor, both old men, who appeal to the Dog Fighter's underdeveloped conscience, trying to instill a reverence for the old ways and customs. Soon bombs are going off at the hotel. A rebellion forms against Cantana. Slogans are painted in red on adobe walls. The struggle for Cancíon becomes a prefiguration of the struggle against globalization. La lucha continua. The Dog Fighter is pulled in both directions. Yet from the moment he glimpses the green-eyed singer (who never sings for him), you know that he's doomed. You know that the Brigadoon of Cancíon is doomed to become something like Cabo San Lucas, full of fat tourists and hungry whores. As the Dog Fighter says of his bouts (and capitalism in general), "The businessmen owned the ring."
One of the curious aspects of The Dog Fighter is that the quote above, like dialogue elsewhere in the novel, appears without quotation marks. There are no apostrophes, either. Bojanowski dispenses with most punctuation to produce a blank-verse, run-on effect—like music without verses or choruses. The lack of punctuation becomes, in some cosmic grammar, a lack of interruption or resistance. It's a daring tactic, but Bojanowski pulls it off, drawing us into the narrator's mind and memory with a dreamlike transparency.
In the end, all the aged Dog Fighter is left to possess is a kind of calm, mournful resignation. He tells his story from a place of peace—past killing, long past the acceptance of his own death. Remembering how he once refused to carry out an assassination that would've also included a child, he recalls that, for the first time, "I had decided on my own." Even after he's lost his great strength and his great love, the thought consoles him like the green-eyed figure of his dreams. BRIAN MILLER
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto
By Chuck Klosterman (Scribner, $13)
A decade has passed since Pulp Fiction and Clerks, and we're all still gleefully tormenting our friends with hackneyed after-hours deconstructions of pop phenomena like The Empire Strikes Back, Saved by the Bell, and the mid-'80s Lakers/Celtics rivalry. Chuck Klosterman, author of the small-town metal memoir Fargo Rock City and sometime Spin scribe, is no different; he was just smart enough to actually document his collection of cracked, hit-or-miss rants in this 2003 anthology (new in paper). We get quite the comprehensive tour of what Pulp's Jules Winnfield would witheringly deem "the big brain on Chuck." Klosterman's analyses of the spooky fundamentalist Left Behind series and his own brief stint as a youth baseball coach are charged with wit and good humor. Depth isn't really the goal, but if you're wanting, SD&CP is peppered with dreamlike asides (i.e., the big-picture uselessness of punk) that are usually more thought-provoking than the essays themselves. ANDREW BONAZELLI
Chuck Klosterman will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Mon., July 19.