Novel describes the love stories behind a dogfight

Matt Burgess
Matt Burgess describes "Dogfight, a love story" as a valentine to Queens in New York, where he grew up.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Matt Burgess says his novel started with him hearing a story about a friend who was walking his pitbull puppy in his home borough of Queens in New York.

"And a little kid said, 'Hey! Let me hold that real quick.' And my friend gave it to the kid, and the kid took off running. And my friend chased after him. And it seems as if the kid then handed it off to some of larger group of older kids," he said.

"And it was obviously some sort of planned dog abduction."

The story got Burgess thinking, both about what might happen to the dog, and what sort of person plans such an abduction. He began writing a novel.

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Burgess realized his character would have to be likable, as they would be spending a lot of time in each other's company in the coming months and years. And that's how he came to create 19 year old Queens resident Alfredo Batista.

"Who is probably the worst drug dealer that the borough has ever known," Burgess said. "Worst as in can't sell any drugs."

Alfredo is smart, sensitive, and as Burgess shows in the opening paragraphs of the book, filled with regret.

In the middle of Alfredo Batista's brain there is a tall gray filing cabinet, frequently opened. The drawers are deep, the folders fattened with a lifetime of regrettable moments. There is tucked away, toward the back, a list of women whose phone numbers he never asked for. There are the debts accrued. In the bottom drawer, in separate folders, there are the things he never learned to do: drive an automobile, throw a knuckleball, tie a knot in a cherry stem using only his tongue. What else?"

Well, a lot else.

To complicate things, Alfredo and his family are waiting for his brother, named Tariq after a prison conversion to Islam, to return home after completing a sentence for armed robbery. That family includes Isabel who was Tariq's girlfriend when he was arrested, but who is now expecting Alfredo's child.

No. I don't think I could. What if I found a typo?

And that's where the love story of the novel's title comes in. But Burgess said it's more than just one love story.

"It's the love story between Alfredo and his girlfriend," Burgess said. "It's a love story between her and her unborn child. It's a love story between Alfredo and his best friend. And Alfredo and his father, who is in a wheel chair, and Alfredo and his mother. And Alfredo and -- in a very complicated way -- his brother who is returning from prison.

"But more than any of those things its a love story between Alfredo and this borough that he lives in."

Burgess freely admitted that's his own love affair, too. He began writing on the book in Queens after he graduated from Dartmouth. But he said he really couldn't focus on the work till he moved to Minnesota for graduate school. He was horribly homesick, but that became a motivation to write.

"And I wanted so badly to hang out with my friends again, that the book became this compulsive way, and this wonderful way for me to hang out with my friends without them actually being there," he said. "And much cheaper than a plane ticket home."

Like exiled writers Willa Cather and James Joyce who moved away to write about their homes, Burgess would contact friends in Queens and make them walk around so they could describe places to him as he wrote. Of course, having cell phones makes this easier.

"And Google Maps, too," he said. "I imagine Joyce would have had a much easier time with Google maps."

It took Burgess three years to write "Dogfight, a love story." It was his thesis project for his MFA at the University of Minnesota, and he raves about the program.

His professors talk about his research, which he claims was just hanging out with old friends from Queens, and his meticulous prose. Then he had the experience about which many writers dream. His book sold. Really quickly.

"Like fantasy fast, it got snapped up," he said.

About a week after he finished the program at the university, he was an author with a contract. The book has been well received. A review in the Star Tribune raved about his writing and described it as "exciting and really-tough-to-put-down."

Burgess is appearing at the Twin Cities Book Festival tomorrow, but other than saying he's working on a novel, he won't be talking about future projects because he's too superstitious. That might be why he's a little leary about reading "Dogfight" again.

"No. I don't think I could. What if I found a typo?" he laughs.

Maybe when he's older he said. Maybe when the next book is finished.