Unhurried, forbidden Mexico used to be where great characters either worked out their existential demons or were bested by them. Most famously, Malcolm Lowry’s consul in Under the Volcano and Graham Greene’s “whisky priest” in The Power and the Glory both wrestled with the human condition there, but even a writer as comparatively buoyant as Saul Bellow once sent Augie March across the border to train eagles, chase after a woman and face down his most immediate destiny (before catching the train back to Chicago). Perhaps it’s something in the cultural waters. For writers shepherding self-flagellating characters through real human trouble, the country’s imagined exoticism, juxtaposed with its unyielding, depthless Catholicism, must make it an ideal crucible for portentous moral dilemmas.
Marc Bojanowski’s sometimes powerful, sometimes narrow The Dog Fighter takes place in the same kind of languorous and dicey setting as those storied works, and even its 1940s time frame is roughly analogous. That the unnamed dog fighter also finds himself in extremis, propelled toward a spiritual crisis, comes as no surprise then, even if readers may wince over how savage and graphic his particular exigency becomes. Indeed, there is no pleasant way to say this: The protagonist of The Dog Fighter is a brute who makes his living by wrapping carpet around his arm and then stepping into rings to kill dogs, usually by smashing and crushing them, or by eviscerating them with metal claws, and then usually only after much violence has occurred. Yet what’s remarkable is how quickly these repulsive elements are smoothed into the fabric of events and how readily we become in thrall to the dog fighter’s story and disquieted by his evolving desires and the moral complexities that envelop him. The Dog Fighter may be dipped to its elbows in violence, but such violence, the novel suggests, ultimately is less interesting than questions of who uses it and how.
The story begins atypically. Growing up, the unnamed dogfighter is no street urchin who scraps out of necessity but rather a doctor’s son in Veracruz whose only exposure to violence is the occasional beating administered to him by his mother. But after her death in childbirth, and his father’s plummet into alcoholism, he finds himself drifting through northern Mexico and the southern U.S., sustained by his dead grandfather’s tales of men fighting jungle animals and a similar desire to throw himself into battle to know his worth. Turning up in a seaside Mexican town as part of a labor gang building a hotel, he becomes introduced to the gruesome spectacle of men thrashing mongrels to death (and, occasionally, vice versa), as well as to the wealthy hotel developer and his young mistress, for whom he secretly yearns.
In part to win her attention, and in part to sate his raw appetite for fame, he then takes his place in the dirt rings still steaming from the blood and remains of just-killed animals, in front of crowds comprising fellow laborers and the town’s rich businessmen, who run the fights. But though he finds easy victory due to his size and strength, his reason for fighting soon changes from a lust for notoriety to a desire for the mistress, a change that also begins a metaphysical awakening. Befriending an old poet and a pool-hall owner, ex–revolution soldiers who lead a violent group opposing the hotel and the development of the small town, the dog fighter soon becomes instructed down other paths of consciousness, having to do with friendship and political awareness. In the end, it is his decision on which of his newly found senses to trust that bestows on him the fate he has been unwittingly searching for.
There is much to admire in The Dog Fighter, not the least of which is Bojanowski’s tenacious attention to physical detail, even if each admiration also tends to breed its own reservation. On the level of pure prose, for example, the decision to leave the dog fighter unnamed and cast the book in the rhythm of his speech, complete with punctuation and spelling inversions and sentence fragments, at times grants us a rueful intimacy with him. In other places, however, such speech is merely lugubrious and implausible given how much brooding goes on and the dog fighter’s sudden turn for the better in matters of human behavior (his unlikely friendship with a gay man, for example, gains him our sympathy while losing him credibility as a character). Similarly, Bojanowski’s skills at invoking atmospherics, and in recording the everyday grotesqueries and easy corruptions that are often part of the writer’s, or tourist’s, agenda in Mexico, imbue the prose with an incantatory power. But as the book wears on, this, too, loses some of its effect, dulled by repetition.
In its best moments, when the plot machinations overspill the protagonists’ ability to comprehend them, and the stakes get raised to the level of life and death, The Dog Fighter threatens to become that most appealing of literary concoctions, the existential potboiler. Yet at other times, The Dog Fighter can seem the most incongruous of coming-of-age stories, and an oddly curtailed one. For while the dog fighter endures an array of disillusionments in his struggle toward personal growth, in the end the customary exchange of innocence for worldly knowledge remains incomplete. Having been disabused of ideals such as violence, fame and friendship, the dog fighter is permitted one last illusion, that of love, an allowance that drops him into a final, intractable limbo. And while the novel’s truncated denouement isn’t entirely effective, given the runaway train of carnage that’s preceded it, it does have a resonance apart from brutality. To be alone and denied the last shred of experience that marks the passage from youth to maturity. Now that’s an example of violence.
THE DOG FIGHTER | By MARC BOJANOWSKI | HarperCollins 291 pages | $24 hardcover