By Phil Mann
Savannah, Georgia, is perhaps best known to non-Southerners through John Berendtís MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL and the subsequent film. The Savannah of Lance Smithís debut novel, THAT DOG DONíT HUNT, bears little resemblance to the romanticized version of MIDNIGHT. Rather than Berendtís glamorous, albeit somewhat dark, depiction of this almost iconic city, Smith shows us an almost unremittingly bleak side of the moneyed 1970sí Savannah, a side dominated by excessive drug use and so dark, stygian really, as to border on nihilism. The people who populate THAT DOG DONíT HUNT are, with extraordinarily rare exception, so drug-addled that they concentrate almost exclusively on their next fix so as to maintain their chemical buffer against reality.
Clayton Bartow, the primary character comes from money, the sort that provides him with an almost diplomatic immunity to any seriously negative consequences for his considerable transgressions. When he drives drunk - and rest assured, he is an excellent drunk driver - he may rely on his family nameís protecting him from the consequences. When police discover controlled substances in his car, they look the other way, for example. Clayton is even saved the condemnation of his parents, who seem to know their son is a neíer-do-well but care little. Accordingly, the first seventy pages of the book (which may or may not be a novel - see below) deal with little more than the hedonistic exploits of Clayton and the people he gets high with, buys or scams drugs from, and occasionally sleeps with. The result is an onslaught of excess only slightly more appealing than graphic descriptions of an autopsy. And in many ways, the first half of the book is an autopsy. Granted, the cadaver isnít technically dead, but with the volume of drugs in his system, he hardly seems in a position to object. Eventually, THAT DOG DONíT HUNT settles into a plot involving an attempt to manufacture stereo speakers, a kidnapping, and homicide.
THAT DOG DONíT HUNT is not without its moments of humor. There are some very funny lines, but they do little to diminish the overall feel of being caught up in a world quickly spinning out of control. One of the problematic aspects of the book is whether Smith pulls off that decadent decline skillfully. The writing itself is fractured, and one might be inclined to praise Smith for writing in a style that emulates the subject matter. The characters, their minds so deeply stuck in the quagmire of drugs, seem incapable of entertaining extended coherent thoughts or of planning far beyond their next line, joint, or pill. The writing matches their confusion. Sentence fragments abound and, at times, dominate the prose, even in the descriptions of Savannahís history. Whether Smith has skillfully adapted his style to the subject or is simply inept at the language is not clear. What is clear, however, is that the book reads torturously for anyone who values the language. Smithís ear for dialogue seems genuine, but when the same fragmented thinking makes its way into the exposition, the cumulative effect is oppressive.
Another question is whether THAT DOG DONíT HUNT is even a novel. The book itself is equivocal. The title page and the back cover tell us that the book is ďthe true tale of trust fund babies, the bad influence of drugs and a couple of murders.Ē At the same time, a disclaimer reads that ďall characters, situations & crimes are fictitious.Ē Certainly, disclaimers are seldom to be taken entirely seriously, but the juxtaposition of these contradictory statements does cause one to wonder.
Ultimately, THAT DOG DONíT HUNT ends as it begins: without any notable point. And that pointlessness, which pervades the book, seems to be the point. As the cover indicates, perhaps with a bit too much candor, two murders occur before the final page. Lives are ended, but the Savannah of THAT DOG DONíT HUNT seems to take little notice of that fact and crawls back into its alcohol-permeated, amoral, and slightly incestuous money. For the reader, the ride is hardly enjoyable, but whether it should be is not abundantly clear.