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The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

After the Coen Bros adaptation of True Grit came out, I read the novel by Charles Portis and then I read his Masters of Atlantis and Gringos. Now, a mere two and a half years later, I've read The Dog of the South, which is the novel he wrote after True Grit and before Masters of Atlantis and Gringos.

The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos have been said to form a trilogy of sorts. The Dog of the South certainly reads like a trial run for the other two, although, as much as I enjoyed it, I'm not sure it's quite as accomplished as either of them. It concerns Raymond Midge, an underachieving 26-year-old in Arkansas whose wife has left him for a shady character named Dupree. Midge tracks them via credit card receipts through the American Southwest, into Mexico, and finally into Belize. Along the way he runs into the usual cast of eccentrics and frauds, most notably the shyster Dr. Reo Symes, whom we first meet living in a broken-down bus called The Dog of the South. Rymes is looking for his mother in the hope of talking her out of an island she owns, which he wants to develop into a sure-fire money making property. He has dozens of sure-fire ideas, despite his long history of failure and scandal.

As I said in my post about Gringos, Portis reminds me of Bruce Sterling, who shares a love for con men, dreamers, big thinkers, and bullshitters. It's hard to describe Portis' approach. It's something like satire, but as such it's more affectionate and whimsical than biting, let alone savage. He's brilliant at portraying human self-delusion, but he uses it to create comedy that laughs with, ruefully, not at, sarcastically. I find him laugh-out-loud funny, but the humor is utterly deadpan and dry. If Portis is under-appreciated, I wonder if it's because he is so ironic and detached.

Yet one of the structurally subtle things he does with The Dog of the South is to leave Midge's wife, Norma, offstage and almost out of mind until the final few chapters, at which point she becomes a strange kind of Penelope character and suddenly this drifting, picaresque novel is the Odyssey. Which ends with an ironic, Vonnetgutian shrug. As always, Portis mixes dreamy, meandering travels with gritty descriptions of material things, especially cars and all their mechanical failings. (Midge claims to be chasing after his stolen car, not his stolen wife.) The characters strive futilely to get a grip on the mysteries of the material world, always hoping to fake their way into the promised land, which is always receding on the mental horizon. It all feels like a shaggy dog story, then all of a sudden it's the Odyssey by way of Don Quixote.

See also Ron Rosenbaum's lovely meditation on the book, "Of Gnats and Men: A New Reading of Portis". Portis has only written five novels. His first novel, Norwood, is the one I haven't read yet.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 4th, 2013 09:31 pm (UTC)
The 1966 issue of the Saturday Evening Post that I picked up in a used bookstore because it has an article on Tolkien, also has the second half of the serialized version of Norwood.
Sep. 4th, 2013 10:39 pm (UTC)
I reckon I'll read Norwood eventually. I'm curious how it compares to his other books. True Grit seems quite different from the three that followed. (Something that Rosenbaum seems embarrassed about in the 1998 essay that's republished in the edition of The Dog of the South that I read.)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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