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"Dogfight: A Love Story" by Matt Burgess

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Matt Burgess

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DOGFIGHT, A LOVE STORY

By: Matt Burgess. Publisher: Doubleday, 304 pages, $24.95.

Review: Burgess' novel is hard to put down. The engaging plot is actually the least of its charms -- the story is a lot of fun, but you'll devour this book because of his gorgeous prose.

Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 28, Micawber's Books, 2238 Carter Av., St. Paul.

A pro's prose

  • Article by: MAX ROSS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 18, 2010 - 11:57 AM
Alfredo Batista is maybe the most likable drug dealer in Queens, which probably factors into his being the worst drug dealer in Queens. Business is sparse; his entire life savings (Alfredo is 19) comes to roughly $200, which he keeps in his sock. Despite long hours -- he's routinely on the streets until 4 a.m. -- he's able to unload only the occasional dime bag or Viagra.

It's because, and surely this is ruinous for any respectable dealer, Alfredo possesses an extremely sensitive conscience. His brain houses its own Department of Regret, with filing cabinets meticulously arranged. There's a "why-didn't-I-wear-a-condom" folder, a folder for having impregnated his brother's ex-girlfriend, and folders for never having learned to throw a knuckleball or drive a car, among presumably infinite others. The day we meet Alfredo Batista in the summer of 2002, he's about to begin a new folder, the contents of which make up the narrative of "Dogfight, a Love Story," the exciting and really-tough-to-put-down novel by Matt Burgess.

The following are consolidated into a single plot: drugs, dogs, "Street Fighter 2," the Mets/Yankees rivalry, the Nas/Jay-Z rivalry, McDonald's infuriating late-night drive-thru policies, and a gun. The main story is that Alfredo's brother, Tariq, is being released from prison, and Alfredo must steal a pit bull for Tariq, so that he can participate in a dogfight. The plot is fun, original, addictive and totally negligible. The real draw is Burgess' prose.

One suspects he could have written a book devoid of story and characters. The landscape Burgess paints (setting: Jackson Heights, Queens) has the alluring exoticism of a Gauguin: "Look around. Shirtless men play netless basketball. A father snaps pictures of his little girl, while a Chinese woman dances to the water-like rhythms of tai chi, while teenagers bum cigarettes off the neighborhood schizo, while bees, drunk with pleasure, swarm the bottoms of trash cans."

Passages like this -- of which "Dogfight" has many -- are not merely funny or incisive but also feel true, and intimately so, as if revealing to us hidden parts of a world we already know. McDonald's, somehow, becomes unusual and interesting.

Will Alfredo steal the pit bull? Will Roger Clemens get beaned? Who will be shot? These questions all have satisfying answers that don't really matter. There's something more expansive at play here, as we watch Alfredo grapple with his conscience and fall deeper into an unknown yet eerily familiar world.

Max Ross' writing has appeared in the Boston Globe and the Harvard Review. A Minnesotan, he currently is a creative writing instructor at New York University.

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