It's the mid-Seventies, and America's trying to ignore its ignominious second-place finish in the Southeast Asian War Games, a loss we suffered because we lacked a clear purpose, an iron will, and the necessary courage of the Vietnamese. The American Dream has taken a severe beating, and everything seems to have gone to hell. The rich are getting richer and more self-righteous, the poor more desperately poor, and nobody seems to remember the losses or the lessons of the Vietnam War. Caught between the hopeful hangover of the sixties and the looming eighties' decade of unrestrained greed, the various governments are as confused and indecisive as they were during the war, plus they have cut services to the bloody bone, and the streets are filled with the hopeless and the hopelessly insane.
The American center did not hold. Domestic relations have become disaster areas, neighborhoods free-fire zones, and the cities are fistfighting themselves to the death. Even our pets turn on us as domestic dogs revert to a more elemental stance, gathering in protective/aggressive feral packs, and sometimes must be destroyed, since the street cops can't shoot their owners.
Or so it seems, particularly to a young Vietnam vet police officer named Hanson. The only people who have even the vaguest notion of what's actually happening are the men and women in the trenches, the street cops.
As he works the mean streets of North Precinct, Hanson sees himself as the last line of defense, the thin blue line that prevents the criminal and the crazy from destroying the middle-class neighborhoods. Hanson also seems to be one of the few who actually care about the street people, as much caretaker as cop as he dispenses justice rather than law among his charges. On these streets, Hanson is the philosopher-king, mucking out the bloody stables with his bare hands.
Complicating Hanson's chores are the battles within himself. He hates liberals with an intelligent passion, partly because they don't understand the dynamic of the street and partly because he sees his own liberal heart as both foolish and weak. Like many men who ask too much of themselves, Hanson would love the relief of a connection with another human being. But he has enough trouble just talking to himself. So he relies on conversations with his cop partner, the occasional visitation from an old Vietnam War buddy who has moved from pain pills for his war wounds to dealing cocaine, and his irregular love-life, which revolves eccentrically around a woman who seems more depraved than the drug-addled streetwalkers on his beat. Mostly Hanson talks to his dog, Truman, a small wizened mutt he saved from a death at the pound after the demise of his ancient owner, against the advice of his cop cohorts.
It's a lonely life when the job is the only life, and when the job is bloody, confused, and dangerous, so is the life. But somehow Hanson survives. The street scenes are at the heart of this novel--moments of courage and compassion, snapshots of anger and understanding, scenes that flash on the brain like unexpected bolts of lightning. Through it all Hanson maintains his pride and sense of duty, but most of all he never condescends to the people on his beat. Throughout the novel, no matter what the anger, the violence, or the epithets, Hanson treats his charges with respect and dignity. They know it and return the favor. This is the way life is for a good street cop. And the way it should be. Hanson is the sort of police officer desperately needed on the street.
There has never been a police novel like this. The writing is as strong as the material: the minor characters are as brilliantly drawn as the best graffiti, the dialogue as solid as a brick through a plate glass window, and the prose as sharply precise as a linoleum knife across the throat.
Night Dogs is not just a fine book, it is an important book. It reminds us of important things, of a time too many people prefer to forget, the loss of faith and purpose after the war; and it reminds us that those people who live on the rough edges of society are people much like us, people with hopes and dreams, with disappointments and endurance; and they deserve the same respect we usually reserve for ourselves. Read this novel, enjoy, think, and rest easy in your domestic peace.
Missoula, October 1996
Every June 15th out at North Precinct, "A" relief and graveyard shift started killing dogs. The police brass and local politicians only smiled if they were asked about it, shook their heads, and said it was just another one of those old myths about the precinct.
The cops at North Precinct called them "Night Dogs," feral dogs, wild and half-wild, who roamed the districts after dark. Their ancestors had been pets, beaten and abandoned by their owners to breed and give birth on the streets. Some paused only long enough to eat the afterbirth before leaving the newborns to die. But there were others who suckled and watched over their mewling litters. Gaunt and yellow-eyed, their gums bleeding from malnutrition, they carried them, one by one, to some new safe place every few nights, out of instinct. Or out of love. You might call it love, but none of the cops at North ever used that word.
Survivors were lean and quick, pit bull and Doberman in their blood, averaging fifty or sixty pounds. Anything smaller eventually starved to death if it wasn't first run down and killed by larger dogs, cornered by children with rocks and bats, or caught in the street by flaring headlights after the bars closed. A quick death the only good luck those dogs would ever know before they were plowed into reeking landfills or dumped in the "Dead Animal Bin" behind the Humane Society gas chamber.
Night Dogs carried a scent of fear and rot in their fur, and the cops at North Precinct claimed they could smell them in the dark--stalking the chain-link fences of restaurant parking lots on graveyard shift, prowling supermarket Dumpsters or crouched, ears back, in the shadows of McDonald's dark arches. When the winter rains came and food got scarce, they ate their own shit and each other.
They waited for night in fire-gutted, boarded-up cellars of abandoned homes the neighborhood had used as garbage dumps, then set on fire and watched burn as they sat on their porches with quarts of Colt .45 and King Cobra Tallboys, waiting for the fire trucks.
Most of the cops would have let the dogs live their wretched lives, but too many were crazy, vicious from inbreeding, putrid food, brain damage. Some thought just the stress of everyday survival made them that way. Everybody had a theory, but in the end it didn't matter.
When Radio sent a patrol car on a dog bite, to "check for an ambulance," they usually found some kid too young to have been afraid. Blacks, whites, illegals up from Mexico, always lying absolutely still, trying to distance themselves from the pain that hurt them worse if they cried. Their eyes gave away nothing, pupils huge and distant in their bloody faces as if they had just seen a miracle.
Sometimes the dogs attacked grown men, even cops, as if they wanted to die, growing bolder and more dangerous in the summer, when people stayed out after dark, and rabies began to spread. It came with warm weather, carried by the night wind and nocturnal animals gone mad--prehistoric possums with pig eyes and needle teeth, squealing in the alleys. Rats out on the sidewalks at noon, sluggish and dazed. Raccoons hissing in the nettles and high grass along polluted golf course creeks. Feral cats, bats falling from the sky, dreamy-eyed skunks staggering out of the West Hills, choking on their own tongues, their hearts shuddering with the virus they carried, an evil older than cities or civilization--messengers perhaps, sent by some brooding, wounded promise we betrayed and left for dead back when the world was still only darkness and frozen seas.
Late one night at the police club, some of the cops from North were talking about it. They'd been drinking for quite a while when a cop named Hanson said you couldn't really blame the dogs.
Well hell, who do you blame then?
Someone back in the corner slammed his beer down.
Fuck blame. Just kill 'em.