The Forces Battling for a Policeman’s Soul : NIGHT DOGS by Kent Anderson; Dennis McMillan $35, 522 pages
Kent Anderson, who wrote one of the more distinguished Vietnam War novels, “Sympathy for the Devil,” turns his attention to the home front with this long, fiercely authentic and deeply disturbing novel about police officers serving as an “army of occupation” in America’s slums.
Although “Night Dogs” is set in Portland, Ore., in 1975, it tells us all we need to know about why Los Angeles burned in 1992. Like his protagonist, an ex-Green Beret known simply as Hanson, Anderson was a combat soldier in Vietnam before spending eight years as a cop in African American districts of Portland and Oakland.
“Sympathy for the Devil"--in which Hanson first appeared--could be the title of this story as well. Anderson forces us to sympathize with, even respect, men only marginally different from the LAPD officers we saw on videotape clubbing Rodney King.
In Portland’s high-crime North Precinct, Hanson works with “troublemakers . . . bad boys, adrenaline junkies . . . ‘supercops’ with something to prove, afraid they were queers or cowards, true believers, racists, sadists, manic-depressives . . . who seemed sane as long as they walked the streets with a gun--most of them good cops.”
By his definition, a “good cop” is quite capable of beating up people in the name of “street justice” and carrying a “throw-down gun” to leave beside a slain suspect who turns out to have been unarmed. That much he shares with bad cops. What makes him good is a residue of feeling for the Rodney Kings he deals with every day, a charred stub of compassion that has survived the flames of seeing the worst that human beings can do to one another.
Hanson resents ordinary people who live in a “dream world,” hiding from this truth he has absorbed at a terrible cost. He especially despises liberals, therapists, community activists, poets--the “sensitive” who leave society’s dirty work to soldiers and cops and then criticize them for doing it.
The only people he respects are his patrol-car partners, Dana and Zurbo, and a few street people who respect him. The only person he wholly trusts is Doc, a black ex-member of his Special Forces team in Vietnam, now a drug dealer and killer.
Macho attitudes are nothing new, of course, in novels and movies about war and crime. What makes “Night Dogs” extraordinary, aside from its literary virtues--the quality of its dialogue and description, its rich cast of characters, its explosive street confrontations--is the force with which those attitudes are presented, even as Hanson begins to realize that they aren’t enough.
For this, despite its thriller trappings, is a story about a man’s soul hanging in the balance. It’s a brave novel because Anderson risks alienating many of the readers capable of understanding its complexities.
If Hanson were really a “monster” and a racist, he could rest content in his war-won certainties. But he can’t. The real reason he hates liberals is that he’s a little bit of a liberal himself. Though he doesn’t believe in love, he knows he needs it. Though civilization is wimpy and hypocritical, he dimly senses that it’s all we have. Though he treats some black offenders with gleeful brutality, he admits it’s not their fault that society has chosen to leave them in poverty, isolate them and suppress them by force rather than deal with their problems.
During the summer of 1975, Hanson unravels. He is assigned to a run of harrowing cases. Colleagues die. A serial killer targets him. A bad cop--a narcotics agent--digs into his past, looking for dirt. A masochistic girlfriend, Sara, eggs him on to be more violent. His loyalty to Doc threatens his professional loyalties. He drinks and takes cocaine.
Dogs symbolize his struggle. North Precinct cops hunt the packs of feral “night dogs” that roam the district, as unwanted as its human residents. Hanson remembers dogs shot in Special Forces training so that he could learn to treat human wounds. He adopts an old, blind dog, Truman, against fellow cops’ advice that the animal be put to sleep.
Believing in no such thing, he never stops hoping to “find . . . instructions for living honorably in the midst of madness and brutality, a diagram or formula that would show him a way to walk, with courage and mercy, through a world where sometimes, late at night . . . he thought he could hear pain itself rising from the earth.”