Friday, August 5, 2011

Review: Dog Eat Rat, by Tom Walmsley

There is something to be said about the beauty of concision. Tom Walmsley knows the power of the minimal, the insight and illumination it can bring to a reader’s mind. In his new novel, Dog Eat Rat, Walmsley composes scenes of incredible tightness, a ruthlessly stripped-down approach to action, dialogue and characterization. It’s a fitting style for this book, considering that his protagonist, Trip, while a private eye during the day, writes haiku in his off hours. This is a novel that knows the art of conveying very much with very little.

Dog Eat Rat is, in many ways, a parody of a hard-boiled detective story; and Trip is, in many ways, a deliberately stereotyped P.I., replete with a fucked-up life and all manner of self-destructive behaviour. The novel tells the tale of an exceedingly dysfunctional love triangle Trip has with two women: a fellow investigator named Ginger (and yes, for the record, she is a redhead) and a young woman named Suzi, who is looking to cast off her dull office job and break in to the P.I. business with Trip and Ginger’s help.

The investigation that sits at the centre of the plot is like nothing you’ll find in any typical detective novel. Trip and Ginger are hired by a man named George DeWitt to spy on his wife Rebecca, whom DeWitt suspects is cheating on him. However, he is not interested in catching her in the act so much as he is interesting in finding out what Rebecca’s paramour does with her in bed so that he, DeWitt, can become a better lover and keep her satisfied. (To be fair, this concept may stretch plausibility to a breaking point for some readers.) What results is a convoluted meshing of sexual and emotional entanglements among the novel’s primary characters: Trip and Rebecca hook up, Suzi goes after Dewitt, etc. etc. etc.

Dog Eat Rat is, as the title suggests, a story about messing around with life’s food chain – in this case, the emotional and sexual food chain between characters who are just barely holding themselves together. Walmsley scrapes clean any inclination he has towards sentimentality and shows the raw, unwashed consequences that come from fucking around with the natural order of relationships. The novel, in its own minimalist way, dabbles with bigger questions – like the existence of God and the slippery nature of fidelity, both to one’s self and to others – but Walmsley is driven by a near relentless obsession with keeping his prose tight, his action lean, and his themes hidden from our immediate view.

I have to admit, though, that the novel did fall apart a little bit for me in the last third. While I appreciate the aloofness of the writing, in the end I had to ask myself what was at stake in this story other than the sexual gratification of its characters. (In that sense, it reminded me a little of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, where the broader ideas are obscured by the characters’ need to simply get off.) Walmsley, at times, keeps a little too much below the surface; he severs the connection between sex and the bigger things he’s trying to examine.

But overall, Dog Eat Rat is an exhilarating read and a disturbing take on a well-established genre of fiction. There are scenes here I will turn back to over and over for the lessons they teach about the magic of brevity, about how to convey a whole world – deliciously imagined – through just a few lines.

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