Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday's Little Known Gem: DOGS OF GOD by Pinckney Benedict

Good grief, what a novel!  A richly written, darkly funny, terrifying country noir.  Part southern gothic, part murder mystery, with elements of a classic western parable in parody.

Dogs of God, published by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York, New York, 1994.

Dustjacket: a dog coming out of a dark background, surreal and out of focus as if crazed or in motion.  The title is in some graveyard gothic type of font, in small letters and in halloween orange.  Likewise, low in the picture and in smaller letters, "a novel by pinckney benedict author of the wrecking yard."  The same dog appears on the spine of the jacket but looking sober and in focus.  The photo is credited to Barry D. Marcus and the jacket design credited to Kathy Kikkert.

Epigraph: "I will appoint over them four kinds, says the Lord. the swords to slay, and the dogs to tear, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and destroy." -- Jeremiah 15:3

Opening lines of the prologue:  "I'm waiting there to see if they've got a bell they're going to ring to start the bout, and this weedy bastard I'm fighting skips right across to my corner and hits me in the face.  Only he's taller than me and doesn't get the point of the jawbone.  Instead, he catches the side of my head, on the ridge of the cheek, which smarts like crazy and takes some skin off, but it doesn't level me.  I guess he figured he could end the whole thing right there.  Hell, I thought he was coming over to shake my hand."

The fight in the prologue (in italics as if a dream) sets up what's to come later in a marvelous way.  This book is funny quirky, prose and plot, and, as with the fighter in the opening paragraph, it is full of surprises you won't see coming.  Don't read it if you can't take a punch.

Opening lines of the text:  "Goody knew the stench.  It had been growing steadily denser, more malignant, in the week that he had occupied the rented house.  It wafted over him as he lay in bed, borne through the open bedroom window on a hot gust of wind.  It pulled him gasping from sleep, from another of his frequent fight dreams."

The stench is the smell of death.  This book has one of the most darkly humorous openings ever written (chapters one and two together), a portent of things to come.

Telling paragraph later in the book:  When he asked where he could change out of his street clothes and into his trunks, Goody was pointed back to the jakes again.  He chose to disrobe in the shadow of the barn near the toilets, rather than inside one of them. . .Yukon followed him out into the barnyard, and Goody tensed himself for trouble.  Then he saw that Yukon also carried trunks and tennis shoes.  Yukon said to him, "They tell me your name's Goody."  Goody nodded.  "What's that?" Yukon asked, smiling.  "Some kind of cookie?"  He laughed and made for the first of the jakes.

"I wouldn't go in there if I was you," Goody called out.

That last line was a Cormac McCarthy joke, a line from Blood Meridian, but you needn't have read Cormac McCarthy to get the humor in this one, though it is often the same kind of humor.

Pinckney Benedict was compared to Cormac McCarthy long before Cormac McCarthy became popular.  Hell, now it seems like almost any new author is compared to Cormac McCarthy.

But McCarthy would have been the ideal author to blurb this one--if he ever blurbed a novel, which he never has.  Instead, they got blurbs from Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn, Lee K. Abbot and two heavyweights, Barry Hannah and Madison Smartt Bell.  Bell said: "dogs of god is an invocation of dark, chthonic forces, a book which almost literally takes no prisoners.  It's a page turner for sure, but also worth reading slowly. . .elaborate, gorgeous writing."

You probably never heard of this one, even though it was published to high acclaim everywhere and the author won both the Nelson Algren Award and a James Michener Fellowship.  A mighty yet little known gem.

This is a literary string-along to Patti Abbot's FRIDAY'S FORGOTTEN BOOKS series, here.


  1. Well, I've been reading Benedict's short stories for years, so I have heard of DOGS OF GOD, but haven't read it yet...sounds like it might well be a fit companion to those short stories...

  2. Oh I am a big fan of Benedict. I took a note just now to read his book from last year. Good review and nice to see his name here and mention of his work. It's surprising to me how few people have read his work.