A Corpse and a Boxer : DOGS OF GOD, <i> By Pinckney Benedict (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: $21; 354 pp.)</i>
When one of Graham Greene’s novels had less literary weight, or at least proved more comic, than he had initially intended, he called it an “entertainment.” Even so labeled, however, Greene’s low art can be hard to distinguish from his high. Some of his thrillers are frighteningly serious and often more effective than his more self-consciously literary works. It’s no wonder that British critics invented a word to describe the tragicomic, morally charged locale of this author’s novels: Greeneland.
It’s too early to say whether critics will someday refer to Benedictland--one hopes not, given the dissonance of the coinage--but with the publication of this young writer’s first novel, “Dogs of God,” it’s a distinct possibility. Benedictland is neither a particularly comic nor a particularly tragic place but it brims with odd characters and creatures driven by primal, irrefutable urges. These desires regularly fail to make sense to the reader, but part of this novel’s magnetic attraction is a logic both alien and commonplace, a logic that doesn’t so much defy analysis as render it irrelevant.
When Goody, the novel’s protagonist, tells his landlord, Inchcape, he has found a corpse near the farmhouse he rents, Inchcape’s reaction is both preposterous and completely in character: “You keep talking about a dead man,” he says, “but you don’t say what it is that you need.”
Pinckney Benedict earned accolades for his two previous books, the short fiction collections “Town Smokes” (1987) and “The Wrecking Yard” (1992), but the stories don’t prepare you for the strength of this novel. “Dogs of God” drives forward without letup, as a thriller should, but what keeps the reader enthralled is the novel’s characters, the rural and small-town originals of Benedict’s native West Virginia.
Goody, a semipro boxer of uncertain history, usually keeps to himself, but his discovery of that corpse leads, in the roundabout way that marks so many happenings in this book, to a backwoods boxing match. It’s a terrible, bare-fisted fight, beautifully described, and results in Goody’s brief imprisonment in an isolated hilltop encampment where his opponent lives and works. The name of the place, El Dorado, is significant: Once a resort hotel, for a time a women’s prison, then a hippie commune, El Dorado is now home to the work gang of a heavily armed, drug-lord wanna-be, Tannhauser, a man whose dreams far exceed his abilities.
Tannhauser could well be a dim, more cynical Kurtz; Goody, an ingenuous, less thoughtful Marlow. But what really gives “Dogs of God” the feel of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is Benedict’s evocation of the wild West Virginia terrain, which seems as lush and exotic and dangerous as a West African jungle. It contains a half-crazed anchorite, the book’s moral lodestar; packs of feral dogs and herds of native pigs who shed blood at every opportunity; an extensive network of underground caves that kill or save, injure or redeem, depending on luck and circumstance.
When the police raid El Dorado, forced into action by a federal drug agent, the place might as well be Vietnam; the subsequent firefight involves mines, flares, assault rifles, machine guns, aircraft and rocket launchers. For many people, reading “Dogs of God” will bring to mind “Apocalypse Now,” the Francis Ford Coppola film explicitly based on “Heart of Darkness.” Like “Apocalypse,” “Dogs of God” succeeds in large measure by pairing things never found together in nature but whose coupling seems plausible, even inevitable, in a world gone wrong. Coppola staged a Hollywood-style USO production in the fetid jungle, water-skiing on an enemy-controlled waterway, Wagner blasting from attack helicopters; Benedict gives us a small-time businessman interred in a tourist cavern, Goody trapped in his wrecked car by a wild malamute, a boxing match in the middle of a drug deal--and within that match, a leather-clad biker asking Goody whether he should stick around, in case the fight gets interesting. Touches like that make “Dogs of God” brilliantly surreal at times, and about as fine a first novel as one could want.
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