Can you steal your brother’s girlfriend and business while he’s in prison and make everything okay when he returns? Alfredo’s day of reckoning has finally arrived. His older brother Tariq, formally known as Jose, is coming home from prison, where he’s been incarcerated for armed robbery. Alfredo and his hapless best friend, Winston, come up with a scheme to steal some drugs to get Tariq back in business, to steal a pit bull so they can host a celebratory dogfight in honor of Tariq, and to make it to the doctor on time for Isabel’s prenatal visit. Just another day in Queens in Dogfight, A Love Story.
Unfortunately for everyone, but most of all Alfredo, his ham-fisted attempts at robbery go haywire when he has a panic attack and has to call in vicious reinforcements. In addition, Alfredo and Winston cannot find a dog to steal for the dogfight. All of the things Alfredo plans as a way to make amends to Tariq are falling apart. The question quickly becomes how disastrous the results will be.
Matt Burgess does a masterful job of building tension around Tariq’s return. Alfredo and Isabel are so young, confused, passionate, and stupid that it’s not difficult to understand why they both followed Tariq before he went to prison and what they found in each other once he left. Burgess also forgoes easy characterizations about drug dealers, high school drop-outs, and teen mothers and writes about young adults doing the best they can in chaotic, barely working-class poverty.
Isabel’s conversations with her son in utero are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Alfredo’s charm, eagerness, and almost paralyzing sensitivity make it impossible not to root for him to survive, if not succeed. Tariq’s thoughts and actions are positively chilling and Burgess describes a violent psychopath who is also a beloved brother and son - no small feat.
Readers will be thoroughly sucked into the drama of the love triangle, wondering how Tariq will react when he sees Alfredo and a pregnant Isabel together for the first time. The book is also infused with the aimless bullshitting and wandering that most teen nights are full of, whether it’s in person or on AIM. Adult readers will remember the potential for fun or danger every night seemed to hold. This is a book full of drugs and violence, but it’s not about drugs and violence. Dogfight is Shakespearean urban grit.