Saturday, July 25, 2020

47. Night Dogs by Kent Anderson

I had been looking for this book for quite some time and finally gave in and bought it new.  I was under the impression that it had been written more recently and this was colouring my view of it as I read it. It had some minor narrative elements that felt a bit passé and even cliché (the partner on the verge of retirement who gets killed).  I was surprised to find that it was written in 1986.  Knowing that, I gave a lot more credit to the writer.  This is a book that was in many ways quite ahead of its time.  I am also annoyed that I gave in and bought it new.

It's the story of a vietnam vet, Hanson, who is now a patrol officer in early 70s Portland, Oregon.  You sympathize with him. He is not a racist, but he is a brutal, asshole abusive cop and African Americans get the majority of his asshole behaviour.  He works the North district, which is (or was) the industrial and poorer corner of Portland.  The cops who work there tend to be mavericks, action junkies or failures from the other districts.  Night Dogs walks a fine line with the protagonist.  He is brutal but also has a sense of fairness.  His behaviour is posited as a given, that this is what cops do.  It reminded me tons of The Wire and I wonder if David Simon had read this book.  It is pretty brutal and "unflinching" as they say and a strong argument for changing the way policing is done in America (even before police departments got massive budget increases, gifts of military hardware and an increasing radicalization in their culture).  Hanson is an asshole, though, and it is painful to see what he does to the people in the community he polices.

There is some minor plotlines that run through it, but ultimately this is much more about being a vietnam vet and a cop and what the day to day life is like.  I don't know if he exaggerated, either in the language or just the facts, but this book is pretty relentless: murdered dogs, abused children, rape, even a snuff film.  At times I had to take a break.  It's a well-written, engaging book, but not for the faint of heart.  Because plot is not the priority here (there is even a cop antagonist who is investigating Hanson that ends up fizzling away), the criticisms about the storylines didn't carry as much weight. I like that.

One criticism I did have is that Portland comes across as pretty generic. We spend most of the time in the poor parts of town, with some brief contrasts with the white liberals (including a college girl who is into kinky violent sex and is turned on by Hanson's aggression).  Portland is a really interesting city with a vibe all its own, on many levels.  Witness the huge protests going on right now against the cops.  This is more than just safe liberals who didn't see reality in 'Nam. 

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