Breaking out a first novel is hard enough, but William Morrow is facing an unusual challenge with Marc Bojanowski's debut, which features an uneducated protagonist who falls in love with a woman he sees on the arm of a local thug, some "creative grammar" and an off-putting title—The Dog Fighter.
"People do cringe," said Morrow publisher Michael Morrison about the title. "It's a very disturbing image." But from the first time he saw the proposal, Morrison was struck by the beauty of Bojanowski's writing. Then in-house buzz took off. "It started at an editorial meeting, with the enthusiasm of all the people who had read it," explained Morrison. "I haven't seen that kind of reaction to a first novel in a long time."
Still, the question was how to market a novel told by a young man who finds himself making a living by fighting dogs with a metal claw strapped to his hand. The gruesome spectacle is just one way that clashing criminal factions in 1940s Baja Mexico get their kicks in the rough and ready border region, which is on the brink of transformation into a tourist destination.
When Morrow sent out 5,000 advance copies, booksellers responded so positively that the house enhanced its plans for the first novel, rather than letting momentum build following features in Outside, Details, Interview and Men's Health and what turned out to be a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review on May 30 . "When booksellers were so gung-ho and wanted to get behind it, we added tour stops in New York and Portland, Ore., to the Northern California appearances that were already planned," said Morrow's associate publisher Lisa Gallagher, noting that the book has a 30,000-copy first printing and went on sale May 25.
Bill Cusumano, owner at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., read the book in manuscript. "I sent it in to Book Sense immediately," he told PW. "It just astounded me," he said, adding that though "it's never going to be an Oprah Book Club pick," it would be his own personal handsell for the summer. "He can get a cult following, there's no doubt in my mind."
Comparisons are inevitable, and Cormac McCarthy is the name that surfaces most often. Adam Sweeney at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss., also likened the 27-year-old Bojanowski's debut to the early works of Jonathan Lethem, Chuck Palahniuk and David Foster Wallace, though "he seems sometimes to still be finding his own way of writing," Sweeney observed.
It could be the grammar thing, which, the author told PW, was "an attempt to force attention to the words themselves. Like poetry, it has the rhythm of language condensed."
Though Bob Maull, owner of 23rd Avenue Books in Portland, Ore., was put off by the style at first, he found it felt "truly right" after a few pages. "It's one of those books that I started reading and the further I got into it, the slower I read," he said.
The Dog Fighter is not for everyone. PW found a number of booksellers who could not get past the title and one who decided not to even attempt to read the book after his wife threw the galley across the room.
"It's like roadkill—when I started reading it, I just couldn't look away, even though I wanted to," said Donna Kane, buyer at Powell's on Hawthorne in Portland, Ore. Once she got past the first and most graphic fight scene, however, she said it is obvious that the book is about so much more. Kane plans to hand the book to both male and female customers and say, "just trust me."