BOOK REVIEW / Ferocious old boars and reservoir gods: Dogs of God - Pinckney Benedict: Secker & Warburg, pounds 9.95

READERS of The Wrecking Yard, Pinckney Benedict's collection of stories, will know what to expect from his first novel, Dogs of God: the rural south, broken-up trucks, backwoods visionaries, and enough injuries sustained to the characters to rival any other dogs, even reservoir ones.

There are a lot of characters in Dogs of God, pretty crazy, most of them, all moving towards the biggest whacko of them all: Tannhauser, the 12-fingered cult-leader who is masterminding a feudal marijuana-growing operation at a place called El Dorado. Two arms dealers have flown in a shipment of weapons to turn Tannhauser's compound into a fortress. An anchorite monk shows up, wailing. The bad-ass sheriff and his deputies are preparing a raid. A local farmer proposes a bareknuckle contest between Tannhauser's bodyguard and a tenant of his, Goody, who rents the house haunted by the murdered woman whose head was split open with a hammer some years back. Goody is sceptical about the ghost, but it was he who sniffed out the corpse in the cornfield next to his place.

He also had the misfortune to roll his car after he'd accidentally creamed a pack of the wild dogs that roam the countryside hereabouts. Out at the compound, meanwhile, they're finding more medieval ways to maim themselves, by chasing wild boars, for instance.

In terms of their capacity for moral discrimination there is little to choose between the people and the animals that rampage through these pages. Both are defined wholly by the physical violence dished out by or to them. We get so used to the characters flinching and reeling from the pain of some assault that entering the mind of a boar does not require the slightest adjustment of narrative psychology: 'The boar's head buzzed with pain: the pain of its torn tusk, its torn ear, its damaged hip.'

If, in Benedict's world, to be human is to be in pain, then the boar is as human as the next man. No wonder that a character known throughout simply as 'the pilot' is full of astonished admiration for the ferocity of the hogs: 'If those things got organized in any kind of significant numbers they could rule the world.'

Another guy, meanwhile, has had his leg slashed by the boar and has bound up the wound. 'You want to let the tourniquet a little bit loose every few minutes or so,' the co-pilot advises. 'Otherwise you cut off the flow of blood, and you lose the leg after a while.' 'But not too loose,' the pilot cautions. 'Or you'll bleed to death. Better to lose the leg than to bleed to death.' The co-pilot ends up 'tightening and loosening the tourniquet on a schedule of his own devising'. A deranged argument distracts everybody and, unnoticed, the guy dies anyway.

The whole novel unfolds in this atmosphere of vivid, violent bewilderment. The mind is always lagging fractionally behind senses which have already lurched and latched on to the next downpour of hurt. Certain things happen to snag in the mind but there's no telling whether, from a narrative point of view, a given detail is important or not. This combination of slack-jawed hazard and omen-laden, constantly erring precision generates the defining imaginative rhythm of Benedict's writing.

It's a rhythm that is stronger than the book's structure, though I'm not sure whether it is strong enough to survive its catastrophic denouement. Benedict is a very funny writer, but Dogs of God has a lot more to it than a version of T Coraghessan's feelgood, dope-growing novel, Budding Prospects, writ ghastly.

Tannhauser is a Kurtz-like figure, whose methods are 'indefensible': he burnt - literally - the hippies who were farming dope at El Dorado before him. Benedict's peculiar vision tends towards the fabular. But what kind of fable is being enacted in these gory goings-on?

Eventually it's not just the characters but the novel's effectiveness that is consumed by its animating destructiveness. Everybody gets blown away by everybody else.

Or not quite: everybody is blown away by Pinckney. He just wipes them out. This isn't to argue for some kind of moral Darwinism whereby certain characters survive by virtue of their worthiness. Certain stories in The Wrecking Yard were abruptly, violently guillotined like this. But scaled-up, in a novel, the essential banality of this strategy is revealed. If a larger point about the human condition is intended, then it's an obvious one: life's a bitch and then you die.

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