Bunker's dog tale -- terrible real life


"Dog Eat Dog," by Edward Bunker. St. Martin's Press. 240 pages. $21.95.

Welcome to hell on earth, brought to compelling life by Edward Bunker - novelist, memoirist, screenwriter, "Reservoir Dogs" actor, and ex-convict - in his brutal, chastening new crime thriller, "Dog Eat Dog." This book is a terrifyingly persuasive walk in the footsteps of three unrepentant bad guys. It's fiction, and it's a breakneck read, but it feels like terrible real life, hits you where you're vulnerable, and forces you to take an unsentimental look at crime and punishment.

The novel tracks three life-long criminals across a hellish California landscape littered with human detritus - not all of it dead. We first meet the trio in reform school, white kids watching each other's backs: Troy Cameron, the rich kid gone bad; Diesel Carson, his giant-sized best friend; and Mad Dog McCain, serial killer in training. Mad Dog earns Troy's loyalty by slicing a rival inmate's back from shoulder to waist; it's one of dozens of bloody, gut-churning scenes.

Readers looking for a break from subtle everyday literary novels or thousand-page Important Idea novels might think they're ready to confront the monstrous trio in "Dog Eat Dog," but let me warn you that this book is not for the squeamish. Bunker takes you right inside the hard-core criminal mind that's been conditioned by childhood trauma and years of prison learning. These guys are unrepentant racists who use women for sex and beating and murder and little else. You may wish you had your own gun to stop them, even though Bunker does a persuasive job of placing their crimes in the context of a U.S. society ravaged by corruption at every level.

Much of the novel is a fast ride, though it's less fizzy than the Tarantino oeuvre. You follow the ex-con trio as they try to score some swift big-time retirement cash. Bunker puts you in the car as the plans are laid and then unravel. In one scene, the trio robs a big-time drug dealer; while they're inside his bungalow, bullets start raining in on them from outside. Bunker is a virtuoso action writer: "When [Troy] saw the next muzzle flash, he started pulling the trigger at two-second intervals, aiming at the flash. He simultaneously walked forward, out the door. Diesel came next, carrying the other bag while shooting the MAC 10 into the bungalows, but at a high angle unlikely to hit anyone. Mad Dog danced along at the rear, whirling this way and that with the shotgun. He would kill anything that moved..."

L.A. and San Francisco buzz right off the page: scuzzy bars, shimmering traffic, drug houses and hotel rooms. Bunker takes you inside a breath-takingly rendered Mexican prison where food vendors set up stalls, comfortable cells are for sale to the highest bidder, and favored inmates can receive guests for week-long visits.

It is in this jail that the trio accepts a job that seals their fate: a kidnapping. You know everything will go wrong for them, but Bunker really tops himself; he sets up and then explodes this last big job in a series of grisly pitiless scenes. You might even feel some empathy for Troy, Diesel and Mad Dog as they get their due. They've got a dark camaraderie that you almost have to admire - from afar.

Ben Neihart published his first novel, "Hey, Joe," this year, after completing a masters program in writing at Johns Hopkins and in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. He contributes to literary magazines, including the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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