The DogfighterBy Jonathan Betuel (Fawcett Gold Medal; 1975)

Here we have, according to the front cover, “A Novel of Ultimate Violence” that “Makes JAWS Read Like a Bedtime Story!” The JAWS reference is misleading, but that description is otherwise dead-on. Ultimate violence is indeed what this novel contains, it being a grungy and altogether repellent glimpse into the world of Southern-fried dogfighting, as seen through the eyes of a slimy redneck named Lenny.

This novel owes something to Charles Willeford’s COCKFIGHTER (1972), which also took a gritty look at a violent American subculture and had a deranged yet curiously likeable and principled protagonist. It’s in that last area that the present novel parts ways with Willeford’s, as Lenny is an utter scumbag through and through with no redeeming features. I certainly wouldn’t call him or the overall novel enjoyable, but the whole thing has an undeniable train-crash fascination.

Lenny is a small-time dogfighter who shamelessly mooches off his waitress girlfriend and isn’t above using lies and petty thievery to get what he wants. He proves this when he spots a fierce-looking Doberman pincer he figures will make a great fighting dog; when the dog’s owner refuses to sell it to Lenny he breaks into the man’s house one night and steals the animal.

Lenny figures the Doberman, who he christens Samson, will be his prized fighter, and plans to make Samson the main contender in an upcoming dogfight. The only problem is a well-connected local hood wants a piece of Lenny’s dogfighting action, which Lenny is loath to let him in on. The hood, however, is obstinate, and, like Lenny, not above using dirty methods to get what he wants.

In this novel the traditional sporting competition formula is reversed: here we’re constantly rooting against the protagonist and cheering as his life steadily falls apart. The suspense is in the possibility that Lenny might just get away with his immoral schemes. Not to give anything away, but you can rest assured that the ending is a satisfying one.

I wonder if Jonathan Betuel, whose only novel this is, is the same Jonathan Betuel who scripted the eighties family flicks THE LAST STARFIGHTER and MY SCIENCE PROJECT. One very movie-ish thing about THE DOGFIGHTER is its play-like construction and lengthy dialogue exchanges. Dialogue is utilized to fill in the minutiae of the novel’s world and also as psychology; there’s little in the way of interior monologue, with the action contained in short, concentrated descriptions. Those descriptions, it should be noted, can get quite bloody on occasion, particularly when detailing the dogfights, meaning that if you’re at all squeamish this is NOT the book to read.