You can practically taste the rice and beans simmering on the stoves in apartments throughout Queens in Matt Burgess’ hilarious yet violent debut novel Dogfight, A Love Story. But to get the full flavor of Burgess’ tale about several days in the life of a Puerto Rican drug dealer and his family in June 2002, you must listen to Ozzie Rodriguez performance of the rapid-fire dialogue. Rodriguez gets the rhythm just right for each character in Dogfight, especially the aggressive, antagonistic quality to many conversations. Sometimes such dialogue can be menacing and hint at the violence ready to erupt at a moment’s notice. Other times, nearly identical words spoken in a completely different situation in the novel can be absolutely hilarious. Rodriguez balances this verbal juggling act perfectly without overdoing either aspect of Burgess’ writing. His one-man chorus captures a cacophony of characters – and I do mean characters.
Rodriguez also excels at bringing to life Alfredo Batista, the good-hearted, street-smart, Mets-loving, 19-year-old drug dealer whose mind races a mile a minute worrying about everything that could go wrong in his life. And Alfredo has reason to be worried. Thanks to the misinformed advice of a friend, Alfredo has accidently double-crossed the wrong drug dealer. Now, he has to try to stay one step ahead of a Russian mobster. But perhaps the greatest threat to Alfredo’s life lies right within his own family. That’s because his brother Jose now known as Tariq since becoming a Muslim has just returned from prison. And Jose’s ex girlfriend, Isabel, is eight months pregnant with Alfredo’s child. In an effort to get on his brother’s good side, Alfredo holds a dogfight to celebrate Jose’s homecoming, which coincides with the Mets-Yankees game that has everyone wondering if the Mets will retaliate against Yankees’ pitcher Roger Clemens for pegging Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza with the ball the year before.
Dogfight is reminiscent of a less violent, funnier version of Richard Price’s Clockers. And Fans of Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing will also appreciate the way Rodriguez slowly builds each scene in this urban fable towards its dramatic conclusion. Insightful, vibrant, and engaging Dogfight stands on its own and delivers a memorable tale of love and revenge that vividly brings to life the vibrant streets of Queens, New York. Ken Ross
What Jonathan Lethem did for Brooklyn, Matt Burgess does for Queens in this exuberant and brilliant debut novel about a young drug dealer having a very bad weekend.
Alfredo Batista has some worries. Okay, a lot of worries. His older brother, Jose—sorry, Tariq—is returning from a stretch in prison after an unsuccessful robbery, a burglary that Alfredo was supposed to be part of. So now everyone thinks Alfredo snitched on his brother, which may have something to do with the fact that Alfredo is now dating Tariq’s ex-girlfriend, Isabel, who is eight months pregnant. Tariq’s violent streak is probably #1 worry on Alfredo’s list.
Also, he needs to steal a pit bull. For the homecoming dogfight.
Burgess brings to life the rich and vivid milieu of his hometown native Queens in all its glorious variety. Here is the real New York, a place where Pakistanis, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, An glos, African Americans, and West Indians scrap and mingle and love. But the real star here is Burgess’s incredible ear for language—the voices of his characters leap off the page in riotous, spot-on dialogue. The outer boroughs have their own language, where a polite greeting is fraught with menace, and an insult can be the expression of the most tender love.
With a story as intricately plotted as a Shakespearean comedy—or revenge tragedy, for that matter—and an electrically col loquial prose style, Dogfight, a Love Story establishes Matt Burgess as an exuberant new voice in contemporary literature. The great Queens novel has arrived.
“Matt Burgess’s debut novel is a beautifully made, street-smart novel that is both funny and disturbing. Written with an almost furious energy, Dogfight has an amazingly well-rounded cast of characters and a plot that leads up to a violent and probably inevitable climax. This is the best first novel I have read in years.” (Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love and The Soul Thief)
I can't fault this book for not being what I was looking for at the time. I read this author's later work, Uncle Janice, first, and that is an almost completely different experience. Dogfight is a gritty, character driven tale, and is all the better because there is no perfect hero here. Every character has their flaws. The writing is great, and the narrator fits the story well.
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