Dogface by Jeff Garigliano
The problem with a promising book is that oftentimes, promises get broken. Jeff Garigliano’s debut novel Dogface is such a book: all the pieces are in place, yet something’s missing.
From the start, we can’t help but fall for fourteen-year-old Loren -- a military-obsessed rebel -- who crosses the line when he sets fire to a country club golf course. As retribution, he is sent to Camp Ascent!, a prison-like summer camp portrayed as a rehabilitation center by its manipulative proprietor, the Colonel. Loren and eight fellow inmates attempt to band together to overcome the abuses wrought upon them by the Colonel and his henchman.
While it’s a promising premise, the book falters in its ability to find its audience. It reads as an R-rated version of Louis Sachar’s Holes, but the profanity, drug references, and sexual overtones in no way manage to enhance one’s reading. Further, the reader can’t help but feel uncomfortable when humor is juxtaposed alongside dark abuses involving suffocation, stun guns, and the deprivation of food and water. We are unsure how to respond: by laughing or calling the abuse hotline?
We can be sure of one fact, however: at least at the novel’s start, laughter is the proper response. Loren's military know-how makes him a perfect protagonist for the novel. Yet his military-adeptness manages to slip away throughout the middle of the story, only to return in the end when it’s most convenient. It is this slipping away -- these instances when characters only act in a particular manner when it is necessary for the plot -- that manages to weaken the integrity of the story. We can’t help but begin to question the dimensionality of all the characters. Are they fully rendered or just cardboard cut-outs to be inserted upon command?
Much to his credit, Garigliano propels the reader by inserting several well-placed clues throughout his book. The three hundred-some pages glide through the readers’ fingers almost effortlessly. But when we come to the end, having dedicated much time and effort to the story itself, the reader can’t help but feel slightly cheated by the outcome.
After Loren and the campers struggle to overcome various obstacles and endure unspeakable suffering, the author closes with a whimpering love story involving Loren and a fellow camper. Rather than offer any kind of commentary on freedom or the difficulties of growing older -- two prominent themes throughout the book -- we are left with a hap dash summary of the young lovers e-mailing, instant messaging and trying to find a way to reunite. And we can’t help but wonder why.
Why dedicate 360 pages to a novel that seems to wrap up without any true transformation of character? After rooting for Loren for so long, his sappy love story only diminishes the power of the experience. Here is a boy who spent eighteen hours wrapped in a rug because he dared an escape. Here is a boy who riled his cohorts to freedom. Why not revel in the themes Garigliano worked so hard to establish? Why play the “love card” when the other material is so much better? Why default on what, at its start, appeared to have so much promise?
Dogface by Jeff Garigliano