“I just wanted to get out, that’s all.” John Ridley / Stray Dogs
Fleeced in a Vegas poker sting, owing big, already down two fingers, John Stewart figures his luck can’t get any worse. Then his classic ’64 Mustang blows a radiator hose on the outskirts of Sierra, Nevada, a dust-bowl hell-hole populated with freaks, geeks, blind Indians and corrupt cops … A one-off throwback which turns and twists like an itchy scorpion riding a switchback, Stray Dogs (1997) deserves a place in the pantheon on the basis that John Stewart is arguably the unluckiest man in the history of the crime novel. His luck isn’t so much bad as evil. Ripped off by the town’s mechanic, then robbed while buying a soda, he sees the money scraped up to pay off his debts vaporised in a shot-gun blast. Cue a seductive femme fatale, Grace, and then her husband, Jake; first he, then she, propositions John with offers to kill the other …
Ridley shopped Stray Dogs around as a novel but eventually rewrote the story as a movie script. Enter Oliver Stone. He decided to shoot Stray Dogs as a homage to Sam Peckinpah’s post-noir classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and generally re-define the parameters of neo-noir in the process. The result was a brooding, sweltering, low-fi masterpiece. The cast alone was worth the price of admission – Sean Penn as Stewart, Nick Nolte as Jake, and a smouldering Jennifer Lopez as his young Indian bride Grace. The supporting characters included Billy Bob Thornton, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Bo Hopkins, Jon Voight and Powers Boothe. With Ennio Morricone providing the cheesy mock-Spaghetti Western soundtrack, the cast chewed up and spat out the scenery along with the lurid dialogue. But Stone’s cinematography represents serious business indeed. Building on the excesses of Natural Born Killers, Stone jump-cuts, scissor-edits, inserts black-and-white stock, deploys hand-held shots, bleached out sequences, time-lapse effects and hallucinogenic montage. The overall effect is one of extreme dislocation that reflects the traumatised thought process of Penn’s sleazy, tortured anti-hero. Shot on a schedule of 42 days, Stray Dogs hit a hitch when Stone discovered that Ridley was planning on publishing the novel before the movie hit the screens. Cue wrangles, bitterness, name-changes for characters and the movie itself, which finally, tortuously, evolved into U-Turn. No doubt John Stewart would have sympathised.- Michael McGowan
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.