BOOK REVIEW / The tail of the pig: Dogs of God by Pinckney Benedict: Secker pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
LIKE many of the stories in his collection The Wrecking Yard, Pinckney Benedict's first novel is riddled with violence and death. From the moment Goody, a bare-knuckle boxer and the book's innocent hero, smells a rotting corpse in the canefield outside his house, through to the book's inferno of an ending, the onslaught is relentless.

Set in one corner of Benedict's native West Virginia, Dogs of God starts off as a patchwork of rambling stories about the oddball characters that have already become this author's stock-in-trade. While Goody recuperates after a fight and discovers the bloody handprints of a murdered woman on the wall of his hallway, two gun-runners fly into the area to make a deal. A Drug Enforcement agent on the look-out for illicit marijuana fields is ferried around by an ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot. In the forest a religious hermit makes a discovery; on the highway, delinquent hitchhiker Peanut is trying to find people to steal from; Dwight is showing vistors round the local tourist attraction - the Hidden World cave complex (the symbolic inferences are left to the reader).

Only very slowly do these strands of narrative begin to coalesce around the central focus of the drug warlord called Tannhauser, a freakish and psychotic Kurtz-like figure who lives with the Mingo Indians cultivating marijuana, aided by illegal Mexican immigrants. Born with six fingers on each hand and a short pig's tail on his back, Tannhauser occupies the place where man and animal become one.

This is Benedict's real obsession in the novel. Dogs of God reads like a reinscription of some of the old frontier stories (West Virginia is almost, if not quite, Daniel Boone's old stamping- ground). The lightweight plot is little more than a backdrop which allows Benedict to return to America's primal scene, the wilderness which created American man and his masculinity. It is a masculinity both formed in relation to, and justified by, a natural world that is full of incidental violence. Wild hogs and feral, cannibalistic dogs stalk the pages of the novel, hardly distinguish-

able from the male characters - who carry out their own casual violence all too easily.

Benedict writes about this landscape and this savage-within-man in a glitteringly visceral prose. Yet the line between exposing the horror of violence and becoming complicit with it is a thin one. And by using the frontier discourse of man against nature, which was historically constructed for all the worst religious and colonising reasons, he risks maintaining its centrality and refusing any wider social dimensions of violence. No amount of great prose can solve these problems.

Only Goody offers any hope of salvation. After killing Tannhauser's Mingo lieutenant in a prize-fight, while the local police raid Tannhauser's camp, Goody accidentally falls into the caves which honeycomb the area. The ground becomes his protector and saviour. This earthy salvation may be far better than looking heavenwards for help, yet it remains a salvation formed in nature, not in culture.

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