Skip to content

Dogfight, A Love Story

April 20, 2011

Are you really doing this? It’s 4/20 and you’re doing a novel about a drug dealer for your column?

Absolutely, I am. Just you watch me.

Are you in a frat now or something?

Hey, cut me a break, it’s a good book. It might even be a great book.

Yeah, but really, you could do so much with this besides just fall into the same knucklehead cliche everyone else does. You could do Dave Cullen’s Columbine, for starters, this being the anniversary and all.

Are you trying to ruin everyone’s day? Here I am, ready to talk about a fireball of a book you know full well can’t be put down, and you’re on about Columbine?

It’s also Hitler’s birthday.

You’re a real buzzkill, you know that?

Why this one? It’s only tangentially about dealing drugs. I mean, Matt Burgess has a lot of talent, but if you’re trying to stay on your Cheech-and-Chong theme, you could get a little closer to it than this one. This one, really, it’s about brothers, it’s about love, it’s about life in Queens. You could’ve done, say, Don Winslow’s Savages here, which is also great and much more directly about the thing people snicker about whenever someone puts the numbers four and twenty together.

High Times already did that one.

Did you just admit to reading High Times?

Shut up, man.


Alfredo Batista is having a bad weekend.

His girlfriend is pregnant. Very pregnant. About to pop, in fact. His brother Jose – now Tariq, having recently converted to Islam – is in prison. He’s crammed into too small a space with his mother and wheelchair-bound father, and needs to get out on his own. He needs money, and he needs new glasses. He needs a parcel of drugs – ecstasy, to be obtained from a pill-slinging 15-year-old Russian boy who clearly doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, and which Alfredo plans to obtain by force – unmarked, untraceable pills that he can turn around and sell for a tidy profit.

And he needs to steal a pitbull, for the homecoming dogfight. Because, you see, Tariq is getting out of prison this week, and Alfredo has to be ready. Because when Tariq walks through the door, Alfredo has no idea what to expect. But he has reason – very, very good reason – to think it might not go well.

The streets started murmuring a couple of years ago, after the Virgil’s robbery. Gio, Conrad, and Jose Jr. stole over twenty-five hundred dollars from the catering hall, and a mere two days after that detectives showed up in their homes. Spiral-bound notebooks in their hands, cuffs in their pockets. That’s some awfully quick police work, the neighborhood shit-talkers said. And what a coincidence Alfredo happened to step out of that car. Alfredo’s defenders … argued that coincidences happen every day. That people were just trying to stir up trouble for the sake of stirring up trouble. That they were looking for a conspiracy where none existed. That Alfredo caught a lucky break, that’s all. No big deal. End of story.

This became a slightly harder position to maintain after Jose went to prison and Alfredo took over his business. Buying trees directly from Baka, Junior’s old connect. Raising eyebrows all over the neighborhood. Well, there you go, the shit-talkers said. There’s your motive. Greed. Second oldest story there is. Alfredo’s dwindling supporters found this laughable. Jose’s in prison! His little brother can’t make a few bucks? Maybe Jose put Baka and Alfredo in touch himself. Ever think of that? (Voices rising, voices cracking.) Jesus, man – that shit happens every day of the week.

This became an almost impossible position to maintain after Alfredo was caught – in Manhattan, at South Street Seaport – sucking face with Isabel Guerrero, as in Isabel Guerrero, Jose’s girlfriend Isabel Guerrero.

Damn, said Alfredo’s defenders.

Love, the shit-talkers said, rubbing their hands together. Oldest story there is.

Just when you think everything anyone could possibly say about New York City has been said, along comes somebody like Matt Burgess to prove you wrong.

Tightly wound, ambitious, and powered by a hyperkinetic energy which makes the scenes leap off the page, Dogfight is a vivid, high-definition profile of its central character and the city he lives in. It’s a pitch-perfect portrait of post-9/11 New York, just months after the attacks. Its neighborhood, Jackson Heights, comes to life in a way that makes it one of the characters, a full-fledged participant in the story. It cracks wise. Its dialogue snaps and pops in a ready-for-the-screen way worthy of Elmore Leonard. It makes you laugh, and it makes you get behind its scofflaw protagonist – but just when you’ve decided to, it snatches your perspective away, shows you the same thing from another viewpoint that ties you all up in knots, and asks, You sure about that? It’s a complex book, a moral book but not a moralizing one, a story of what happens when all the good choices seem to go away. It’s got style, it’s got sass. It’s got vigor and it’s got vinegar, a hot pepper of a book that makes you wish for more.

Burgess’s prose is stellar from start to finish, capable of making you laugh, wince, shudder and thrill with equal facility. For such a fast-paced, action-oriented book, it’s surprisingly deep, and his characters are alive and soulful. It starts off at a brisk walk and breaks into a run right when it needs to, never letting up until the violent, inevitable climax. It’s vulgar and brutal and tender and heartfelt, all at once. It’s a first outing executed with swagger and confidence. It shows a lot more than potential – it shows talent, real talent, talent that deserves recognition, an authentic voice that deserves to be heard.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: