Bait Dog is one of the hardest reads I’ve ever experienced. Not because any of the language was obtuse, mind you: Chuck Wendig, as always, writes smoothly and conversationally. It also wasn’t because there are any plot problems or discordant character moments. It was hard to read because it deals with the ugly and absolutely repulsive world of dog fighting.
Atlanta Burns is a girl who gets shit done. We established this in Shotgun Gravy. Word has gotten around, and now other people want her to get shit done for them. A rich girl hires her to find out why her dog crawled home missing her claws and teeth. Atlanta isn’t much of a dog person, but she needs the money so she takes the case. Her friend Shane seems to think this means she’s given up on finding who killed their gay friend Chris, while evidence suggests the young man committed suicide. The more Atlanta kicks over the rocks hiding this depraved world of dogs teaching other dogs to kill, the more she finds animals far worse behind them, the sort of animals who would stage a suicide just to murder a boy who likes other boys.
Gritty tales such as this are necessary in worlds where people would much rather invest in canned sequels and safe but mediocre remakes. People may think that sordid affairs and underhanded people of this nature only exist in certain places far from their homes. Stories like Bait Dog remind you that nothing could be further from the truth. Having lived near and moved through the areas of Pennsylvania described in the world of Atlanta Burns, the idea of dogs being tortured and murdered for profit so close to my home is absolutely chilling. And that’s only part of the story.
So many people say “it gets better” when it comes to bullying, to hatred, to racism and homophobia and every other type of evil, ignorant behavior that seethes in the hearts of human beings. But when you see a friend with an eye swollen shut because of bullies, or crying because of narrow-minded hate, or hanging from the end of a rope, it’s hard to believe that it will ever get better. Atlanta has her own way of making things better. It usually involves a squirrel gun, a collapsible baton, or a big can of bear mace.
It can be hard to remember that Atlanta’s a teenager. She goes about her business with what seems like certainty to the outside observer. But from inside our head, we see how much she flies by the seat of her pants. We keenly feel her lack of confidence in herself, her concerns for her mother and her friends, and her absolute intolerance for the intolerant. In a world where polite society would have her working out a compromise, learning to forgive and forget, where compassion is expected to be levied against hatred, Atlanta answers hatred with hatred, blood for blood. So all-consuming is her thirst for basic, natural justice that she will risk everything, anything, to see it done. She’s a pint-sized pubescent Punisher.
Atlanta’s stories, so far, work on very basic levels and play on raw nerves. This both makes it hard, at times, to read, but also worth the time and effort to read it all the way to the end. The story builds in a very organic and visceral way, pulling off plot twists and character revelations in a fantastic way. As difficult as some of the mental imagery can be to process, by the time you’re in a hard-to-read section the tale’s already got you by the balls, and you can’t not finish reading it.
If you like very human protagonists who kick ass, if you want to see true evil punished, if you love your pets, Bait Dog is for you. Know going in that it’s going to hurt. Remember that the hurt will be worth it. Take a deep breath, and dive in.