Peter John McLean

Dog Eat Dog by Edward Bunker (Reviews)

In case you don’t know, Edward Bunker is a badass. Well, he was. He’s dead now.

I recently bought Dog Eat Dog, which is a story following three ex-cons who are working on getting started robbing drug dealers. The rationale is that drug dealers won’t snitch to the cops, so they can handle the whole operation without fear of federal reprisal. As all three of the main characters are career felons with awesomely long rap sheets, it’s a smart plan.

One of the most pervasive themes in this book is the three strikes laws in California and the bullshit around that; it’s pretty obvious that Edward Bunker, the author of the book, had plenty on his mind about these laws because he seldom skips an opportunity to ramble about how asinine it is to put someone in prison for life for petty crimes, just because they’ve committed a few priors. He also makes (and later illustrates) the awesome point that if you have two strikes and are about to get arrested for shoplifting, you might as well die bloody in a shoot out with the cops.

Which, incidentally, is pretty much where the story goes.

While Dog Eat Dog ostensibly tracks three guys who are all working together on their new heist gig, the real story generally follows Troy, who is just getting released from prison. Thanks to a decade in San Quentin, he’s read a lot of books, matured significantly, and also realized that there is no life for him outside of crime. The book doesn’t deliberate much about the impossibility of getting straight after prison for a felon, but it deals in parts with Troy meeting up with his old friends, immediately resolving to skip on his parole and take a new identity etc.

Troy has two strikes and knows he doesn’t stand a chance trying to make his way in the non criminal world, so he gets a new identity, connects with some old friends, and starts to set up his drug dealer heist setup with Mad Dog (who stabs his girlfriend to death in the first chapter) and Diesel.

The book follows the three as they work to set up their new gig and balances horrific violence and dark comedy brilliant. I don’t normally like books that have a lot of action, I’m generally more of a cerebral fiction type, but if it is going to have action, it should be like Dog Eat Dog, with visceral shoot out scenes, cops getting punched in the face, bird shot slowly whittling away at an armed convict in yet another shoot out with the cops, and some random lovers stabbed to death in the living room.

A lot happens in Dog Eat Dog. It’s all very gripping.

My only complaint with the book is the use of the omniscient narrative. I have complained about this before. I won’t stop. It’s a lazy way to write a book. Hell, even George R.R. Martin knows better and switches third person limited perspective between chapters, which works. But Edward Bunker just describes the thoughts and feelings of whoever he wants, whenever he wants, often switching between two people in the same room whenever it is convenient.

It’s a lazy form of narrative and removes a lot of excellent tension. Not to mention, it leaves the reader often feeling like he only has a shallow grasp of all the characters, because there isn’t any consistency. If I consistently read a book from the perspective of one character, I can relate to him when he doesn’t understand the behavior of other characters. However, if the narrative enters that other characters mind, I as the reader know everything, and am alienated from the characters in a subtle but important way.

The book would have been better if the entire story had been form the perspective of Troy. Yes, the first person account of a coked out Mad Dog McCain stabbing his girlfriend and her daughter to death would have been missed. But Troy still could have heard Diesel recount how he found their bodies in the freezer.

Third person limited is the way to go.

But even still, Dog Eat Dog is an incredible book and everyone should read it.