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Crime: Straight Up : DOG EAT DOG. By Edward Bunker (St. Martin's Press, $21.95, 240 pp.) : FIGHT CLUB. By Chuck Palahniuk (W. W. Norton, $21.00, 208 pp.)

August 18, 1996|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is the author of "Cape Cod Blues" (Red Dust), a collection of poems. He is writing a book about Kack Kerouac for the University of California Press

Successful crime fiction, like successful crime, has a certain characteristic shape. In order to be effective, it requires simplicity and authority, and a deft attention to the bottom line. There should be nothing extraneous, no detail left to chance. As Edward Bunker explains in his fourth novel, "Dog Eat Dog," "I'd steal with a gun if the score was right. But if anybody got hurt, it was a failure. The idea was to be smooth."

Like Bunker's earlier work, "Dog Eat Dog" is an underworld novel written very much in the classic mold. Beginning with a brief prologue that introduces its protagonists as teenage charges of the California Youth Authority, the book quickly jumps to the present day, where Troy Cameron, now a thirtysomething two-time loser, has just been paroled after serving 12 years in San Quentin. He arrives in Los Angeles with his running mates, Diesel Carson and Mad Dog McCain.

Troy is an odd sort of criminal, the son of a Beverly Hills physician, possessed of a persistent, gnawing conscience and an appreciation of life's finer things. Among these refinements is a taste for literature, which he uses as a mirror through which to reflect the world. Hence, his description of the federal penitentiary at Marion, Ill., as "right out of Kafka" or his wish to "win the game, take the big score, and spend the rest of his life on a sunny beach in a faraway place, play Gauguin or Rimbaud."

Bunker's use of literary allusion is hardly unique in crime fiction: Charles Willeford's 1953 classic "High Priest of California," for one, features a narrator who spends his spare time studying James Joyce. But while Willeford uses literature as a plot device, Bunker roots Troy's love of reading deep within the character's core. In fact, what's most resonant about "Dog Eat Dog" is the authenticity Bunker bestows upon Troy and all his interactions, the sense we have that every scene and motivation is, or could be, true.

Given the author's history, that's hardly surprising. A thief and drug dealer, he spent more than 20 years behind bars before being released for the last time in 1975, and his grasp of the way criminals move through the world is understated and sure. Throughout the novel, he captures the jargon, the sense of existing in, but not of, society, infusing the whole edgy mix with an easy, off-handed brutality, as if things could explode into violence at any time. This is especially true of the killer Mad Dog McCain, who more than lives up to his reputation. As early as "Dog Eat Dog's" opening chapter, he murders his lover and her 7-year-old child.

"Dog Eat Dog" is a relentless freight train of a novel, obsessively readable, driven and dark. Still, for all its narrative urgency, the book has some awkward moments, especially when it comes to matters of style. At times, Bunker's prose takes on a plodding quality and his dialogue often seems unfocused, more about exposition than natural speech. Equally disturbing is his habit of inserting political platitudes into the story as if they were essential to the plot. It's not that such subjects are irrelevant to Bunker's purpose; a major subtext here is the way the "three-strikes" law has made career criminals like Troy and Diesel more likely to risk "holding court on the spot." One of Troy's old prison buddies sums it up best when he says: "If they're gonna give him life for shopliftin', he might as well get it for robbin' banks and killin' cops." Unfortunately, by the fifth or sixth time Bunker makes a similar observation, I can't help thinking that he's belaboring the point.

There are no political cliches in Chuck Palahniuk's first novel, "Fight Club," which bears a certain superficial similarity to "Dog Eat Dog," if only in its evocation of mayhem as a way of life. Taking place in an unnamed city at a time very much like the present, "Fight Club" unfolds in flashback as its narrator describes how he came to be involved with Tyler Durden and the "fight club" from which the book takes its name. Tyler is a charming sociopath, a part-time waiter and film projectionist who organizes groups of young men to fight each other bare-handed every Saturday night. Initially, this peculiar brand of self-improvement jars the narrator free from his life of insomnia and isolation, where the only community available to him has been the one he finds attending support groups for people with incurable diseases.

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