The Dog Fighter by Marc Bojanowski

He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Here is an old man with no name. He is, as old men are sometimes wont to do, speaking to us about events of his youth. He is born in Veracruz, Mexico, where he falls under sway of his grandfather, who tries very hard to make him into a cruel seeker of power. His grandfather thinks that his father, an educated man and a doctor, is too soft, and knows that his mother married his father in order to soften up the boy, who comes from a line of people with fire in the blood. At the very least, the grandfather thinks, the father has passed on his great strength to the boy: “How I prayed to God for what I could do with that strength in his son,” he muses. He tries to inculcate cruelty and animal survival instinct by telling wild stories of “men fighting beasts whose teeth are sharp as obsidian shards and whose eyes were lit by fire.” The boy obeys his grandfather’s voice, even after his death. By his inherited taste for mindless violence, drives his mother to miscarriage and death and his father to mad drunkenness.

But wait. The boy is not to be under the spell of his grandfather forever. Most of the events of the narrative occur in a small town in Mexico in the 1940s, a town that is in the brink of being made into a tourist locale. The town’s name is Canciòn, but it might as well just go ahead and be Cancun, for all the Girls Gone Wild visions it conjures up. There, the boy, now a young man, works on a hotel being built by a businessman who rules the town with an iron fist. Because of the young man’s strength and size, he falls into another occupation: fighting dogs (and fighting them to the death — don’t read this book if you’re terminally squeamish about canine pain and suffering).

He also befriends a few old men who are trying to stop the touristization of Canciòn through terrorism, and who want to use him for their own purposes. And, most importantly, while dogfighting, he sees a woman he falls wildly in love with from afar. By the end of the book, he is fully immersed in the unfolding drama of Canciòn’s struggle for self-definition, and has no choice but to take sides.

The setting, the violent subject matter, and the erratic punctuation all suggest a debt to McCarthy’s Meridian. But it is not just the narrative swing away from cruelty and Nietzchean morality that distinguishes Bojanowski’s narrator from McCarthy’s “kid.” What separates this book from McCarthy’s hopeless bloodbath is that Bojanowski has given us the gift of the narrator’s voice. The dropped possessive apostrophes and omitted commas, about which I was inherently skeptical, are earned, not gratuitous. They provide the flavor of a man who has learned to write, from his father and from the poet, but not well enough for niceties. The observations the narrator provides about his life in Canciòn are delicately articulated and well-scattered amongst his plain speech, providing welcome touches of humanity. (About children he plays with in the marketplace: “The children hid behind all this or one another holding their laughter as I stalked them through the aisles growling like some horrible monster with one eye closed and my hands searching the air for tiny arms and smiling lips glistening with sugar.”)

Bojanowski sometimes missteps by directly referring to the narrator’s moral struggle, as when he declines to kill the businessman who is building the hotel because his associate’s small son is present. At such times, he says things like “There was too much of my grandfathers voice in this killing … the boy did not need to see me become my grandfathers voice before him. That would die with me.” The moral conundrum, however, is better illustrated by the narrator’s trajectory of coming to terms with his love for the woman and for the town around him.

In fact, by the end of the book, Bojanowski has created a wild sympathy for a narrator who initially seems distastefully amoral. The narrator’s affection for the world — not only for the woman in question, although she opened that door for him — has created a capacity for moral choice. (In this respect, the book owes more to Jack London and his Buck, from Call of the Wild, about a dog brought back from wildness by love of one man, than to McCarthy.) In the end of The Dog Fighter, the narrator entertains a wild vision of happiness: He is lying in a bedroom and the woman is showering in the other room. “I am yelling at the ceiling how much I love her. But she pretends not to hear me through her singing with the water and it only makes me smile and yell I love her more. And then she sings and I smile more because we have each other and this is a small game we play as lovers.” In another book, that coda might seem gratuitous or maudlin. In The Dog Fighter, it reminds us of how we humanize each other by our very presence on the earth.