Bold steps on a road where giants have tread

Times Staff Writer

The man who may be the next Hemingway is basically unreachable.

At first call, Marc Bojanowski is bike riding down by the Russian River. At the next, he is actually in the river. Fishing. He has no cell phone. Doesn't believe in them. And he has no home. Is temporarily camping at his parents' house. Or maybe in their tool shed (he never says which).

The shed is the place from which he eventually calls a reporter's answering machine. But instead of leaving word on how to reach him for an interview, he interviews himself. On the machine:

Bojanowski: "How would you describe your new book?"

Bojanowski: "It's a love story."

Bojanowski: "Where are you from and what was your childhood like?"

Bojanowski: "I am from what was once a rural portion of Northern California. My childhood was idyllic. We were let loose to run in oak savannas, and it shaped our imaginations."

He ends his message on a way-too-graphic note, saying he wanted to be a baseball player but tore his rotator cuff in an erotic exercise -- one best left undescribed here.

This is not exactly the interview that was envisioned.

After finally connecting, Bojanowski apologizes for leaving the bawdy message. He says he thought it would be funny. He is sitting outside his parents' shed. "Can you hear the mockingbirds? And the wind in the poplars?"

Bojanowski is 27. His first book, "The Dog Fighter," is making literary ripples. The publisher, William Morrow, was reportedly "so struck by the beauty of Bojanowski's writing," and so heartened by booksellers' enthusiasm after 5,000 advance copies were sent out that they upped the initial printing to 30,000. A New York Times review was somewhat snide but ended up likening Bojanowski to Hemingway:

"Somehow his novel, though dripping with macho cliches, manages to transcend cliche. Or maybe it simply embodies it with such commitment that it pulls off the wicked trick of making his cliches seem vital and new, just as that great fight writer Hemingway did."

"With all due respect," Bojanowski says, the New York Times "got it wrong." He is more a disciple of author Cormack McCarthy, he says. "I read McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian' when I was 18 and it kicked me in the head." He has never been the same, literarily speaking.

Bojanowski's book is something of a head tackle. It is primal and elemental, a simply told fable of love, hate, greed, good and evil -- all grinding against each other like tectonic plates. The book's title has been called "unfortunate" in this pet-ophile era. But it is accurate.

Set in the 1940s, in a fictional village in Baja California, it's the tale of a poor and violent young man who fights dogs for fun and profit. He fights with a rug wrapped around his arm and a steel claw strapped over it. The dogs have their own battle advantage: Trained to be vicious, their teeth have been sawed into pointy needles. In each contest, either man or dog must die.

Like bullfighting and cockfighting, it is possible that this kind of dogfighting actually existed, the reader may think. An ancient Mexican tradition is what it's called in the book. But it is a figment of Bojanowski's imagination, he says. There never was such a thing.

Bojanowski's unnamed hero lives through all his dogfights, of course, because he has to. He is the book's narrator. And also because he is very big, very strong and very handsome. Too beautiful to die. And he understands pretty early on -- he is smart and sensitive too -- that dogfighting isn't his cup of tequila. So he looks for something better, which gets him into trouble.

He meets the town Trump -- a man with the vision to see just how lucrative and upscale the little seaside spot will be once hotels are built and American tourists are flowing. He also meets the town poet -- a man who fights to keep the town as it is. Poor, but pure and simple. It is a village in which light reflects off the ocean, the hills are unsullied and abloom, the little huts are like ants around the town's true center, its big cathedral.

But as the story takes hold, the town's first hotel is rising; it will be bigger than the church. It will blot out the sun, corrupt the beach, flatten the hillsides, enslave the townspeople as servants -- or enrich them, depending on who the dogfighter chooses to believe.

The dogfighter -- in the throes of rhapsodic, unconsummated love with a town vixen -- has both sides vying for his support. And no idea which way to turn. He turns both ways, which propels him toward disaster.

Bojanowski did research on the place and the time period by studying old periodicals, maps, tourist guidebooks -- "and a lot was left up to my imagination."

Does any of this sound compelling? Well, it isn't in the book's first third, which reads like a student hoax -- a simulation of Papa's style but without his talent. Just when you're ready to throw in the towel, a certain poetry commences. A pulse erupts that keeps you reading, carries you straight to the heart of this tale -- the dogfighter's unfulfilled passion -- on a wave of some spectacular imagery and writing.

Bojanowski says he knows his book is "flawed. Terribly flawed." It is his first, after all. But his idea of flaws are not those most readers would pick on. The book has no commas or apostrophes. It has a plethora of periods that seem totally out of place. He writes simple, declarative sentences, which he then hacks in half and ends with a dot. Like a kid bisecting an earthworm to see if both ends wiggle. Why? In fact, Bojanowski says, he cuts sentences in half to make people slow down. Like road bumps. He believes we read too quickly, without thinking.

"There are new ways to read. I am trying to get people to do it more carefully. We're not careful enough."

The book is not unrelated to his life, he says. Nor to his hometown of Healdsburg, Calif., which is still rural and beautiful but much less so than when he was a child. "When I was growing up, it was idyllic and pastoral. We used to go to this point called Reservoir Ridge, where we would watch the lights of the 101 coming down like a giant lava flow." The highway was a novelty then. "Now we have more Hummers and Volvos" than roads.

"And we still had fruit trees up here. They tore out the last prune orchard maybe two years ago. Farther north, the wine grape industry has invaded, exposing the land, the water, the underpaid migrant workers and their children" to the toxic chemicals it uses with impunity, he says.

The town he imagined in his book, with all its violence and corruption, is allegorical. But the love the dogfighter feels -- for his woman, for writing and for life itself -- is real. In spite of all the world's problems, Bojanowski says, it's worth fighting for what is beautiful, right and good. "Is this a great time to be alive, or what?"

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