'Dogfight' Author Captures Grit, Soul Of Queens, N.Y. Matt Burgess' debut novel, Dogfight, A Love Story, is the story of a love triangle between two brothers over the course of one weekend in New York's borough of Queens. Guest host Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Burgess about his novel and about his own experience growing up in Queens.
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'Dogfight' Author Captures Grit, Soul Of Queens, N.Y.

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'Dogfight' Author Captures Grit, Soul Of Queens, N.Y.

'Dogfight' Author Captures Grit, Soul Of Queens, N.Y.

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There's a new novel out that does that for New York. Specifically: the borough of Queens. Author Matt Burgess nails the places.

MATT BURGESS: The churrascarias, the botanicas, the farmacias, the eyebrow threaders, the pizza parlors, the liquor stores, the auto body shops, the Seoul(ph) glass emporium.

LOUISE KELLY: And then there's the people.

BURGESS: The dog walkers, the butchers outside their shops, the Dominican dudes on milk crates - they all smile and nod.

LOUISE KELLY: Hey there, Matt.

BURGESS: Very nice to be here.

LOUISE KELLY: Those descriptions we just heard you reading are so vivid. I mean, it really can feel like you're walking right down the street in Queens, which is where the whole book is set. Why don't I start by letting you tell us, in a nutshell, what's the book about?

BURGESS: The book is about probably Queens's worst drug dealer ever - Alfredo Batista, who is a 19-year-old Puerto Rican kid living with his parents. And his older brother's returning home from prison, which is a source of some concern for Alfredo, because Alfredo is now dating his older brother's ex- girlfriend Isabel. And she is, at the start of the book, seven months regnant.

LOUISE KELLY: OK. So Alfredo Batista, as you say, this scrawny teenage drug dealer, he has gotten his brother's girlfriend pregnant. There's a scene early in the book where he mugs a kid outside his school. And yet I found, as I was reading, you can't help rooting for the guy.

BURGESS: Yeah. Well, that's - I'm glad to hear that. I mean, he is - he does some pretty reprehensible things throughout the book. But you can never be more upset with him than he is with himself.

LOUISE KELLY: And he's locked in battle with this brother, Tariq, who is leaving prison, who has a lot of reasons to be angry with Alfredo.

BURGESS: Yeah. And he's already an angry individual.

LOUISE KELLY: This story of two brothers locked in battle, I mean, there's something universal about that. What was the appeal to you of telling that sort of story set in Queens?

BURGESS: It's brother versus brother, a revenge story, and it's also a love triangle. And I wanted to tell a story with probably the most basic plot or most familiar to us. I mean, it's like - brother versus brother is in Genesis, you know. And I wanted to tell a simple story so that I could dress it up with all the things that I'm interested in, like those botanicas and the eyebrow threaders. Sort of bringing this neighborhood to life, and these characters.

LOUISE KELLY: You steer the brothers through the book and it comes to a climax with, as the title suggests, a dogfight. They're down in this sweaty basement of a corner shop in Queens. And the Batista brothers, Alfredo and his brother Tariq, have brought a pit bull. And they are fighting their pit bull against a German shepherd named Diana. I wonder if you would read a little bit from that passage on page 255.

BURGESS: Afterward, when thinking back on this night, everyone down here will remember the crack of initial contact. The way the dogs, both of them airborne, collided in the center of the ring. The way the bone of one dog's skull smashed into the bone of the other dog's skull.

LOUISE KELLY: And that violence that you just read about between the dogs is a prelude to violence that's going to come between the brothers.


LOUISE KELLY: I mean, without giving too much away, this is a very brutal climax. It's a brutally violent book.

BURGESS: Yeah. Yeah. And I hope it's also a funny book too. When I was - I tried to, you know, cram everything in there. When I started this book it was probably much more violent and much grimmer. Like, look how rough these lives are. That sort of thing. And my father, actually, asked me - he said, so you're working on a novel. Is it funny? And I said, no, not really. And he said, yeah, that's what the world needs, another unfunny book.


BURGESS: And I was like, yeah, no kidding. And so I tried to really - I tried to balance out the violence and sort of the intensity of the book with, you know, some real life stories with me and my friends hanging out and just goofing off.

LOUISE KELLY: I wondered when I read about the ghetto car.

BURGESS: So what we would do is we would, you know, squat down. We would pull up to the window in this imaginary car - there's four of us - two in the front seat, in this imaginary front seat, two in this imaginary back seat and we're squatting. The driver has his arms locked in front of him, holding the steering wheel. We'd roll down the imaginary window - and it never ever worked. And we called it the ghetto car.

LOUISE KELLY: I saw where you said that your research for this book largely consisted of hanging out on park benches and stoops and handball courts and running your mouth and hearing the stories that came back at you.

BURGESS: That's pretty much all I did, yeah. When I started the book, I thought I was going to write about this big bad drug dealer. You know, like the pope of Jackson Heights. But I realized that I'd have to do quite a bit of research 'cause I don't know any big bad drug dealers. I know some drug dealers who are living with their parents and selling weed just so they can afford their own weed. And it became much easier for me to write about a drug dealer as clueless about this whole industry as I am and as my friends are.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, and how close are these characters to people who you would have known growing up? I mean, this is about a pair of Puerto Rican drug dealers in Queens. You are a white Ivy-educated Dartmouth grad.

BURGESS: Yeah. Well, Jackson Heights is probably - I've heard - I don't know if it's true - I've heard it's the most diverse place in the world. And so I have a lot of different friends and we all hung out together. A lot of different friends, both personality-wise and ethnicity-wise. And I worry that it might be a challenge to be writing point of views from Puerto Rican kids. But it was no harder than writing the point of view of - for anyone(ph).

LOUISE KELLY: Do you think, Matt Burgess, you could evoke a place so vividly if it weren't Queens? I mean, could you write like this about Minnesota, where you are now?

BURGESS: I don't know. I've tried to write other stories that don't take place in Queens, and it just doesn't have the same urgency for me. Which is not to say that I think Queens is a more interesting place than Minneapolis, where I live, or any of the other places where I've lived, but it doesn't - I daydream Queens in a way I don't these other places.

LOUISE KELLY: That's Matt Burgess. His new book is called "Dogfight: A Love Story," and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks a lot.

BURGESS: Thank you.

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