Monday, May 2, 2011

The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis

Charles Portis published his third novel The Dog of the South in 1979, some ten years after his classic True Grit (1968) first appeared. Portis has had a chequered publishing history, writing five novels at rather large intervals since his 1966 debut, Norwood.

For the most part, The Dog of the South follows the same formula as Norwood. Many writers return to old themes and re-work them or build upon them. Oscar Wilde even went so far as to saying that writing was nothing more than re-writes. It’s tempting to think of The Dog of the South as a re-write of Norwood. In both novels, a young man who is a bit of a drifter goes on what becomes a travelling adventure when trying to recover a debt. (There are similarities here to True Grit as well, with narrator Mattie Ross going on a wild adventure when trying to get pay back for her father’s death.)

Light on Plot, Heavy on Colourful Characters

The Dog of the South is light on plot and heavy on eccentric characters and colourful observations. For example, early on there’s this startling description of a young girl driving a car.

“In South Texas I saw three interesting things. The first was a tiny girl, maybe ten years old, driving a 1965 Cadillac. She wasn’t going very fast, because I passed her, but still she was cruising right along, with her head tilted back and her mouth open and her little hands gripping the wheel.”

The narrator, Ray Midge, has been cuckolded by his wife’s first husband, Guy Dupree. Norma (Ray’s wife) and Dupree have run off together and taken Ray’s beloved Ford Torino. A little surprisingly Ray isn’t angry with Norma, and rather puts her rash behavior down to a general confusion about what she wants in life. Ray admits to the reader that he’s a bit of a bore, a homebody who likes to spend long hours reading history and ignoring his wife’s restlessness. He doesn’t blame Norma too much for her decision to up and leave.

Ray sets out to try and track down Norma and Dupree using credit card receipts (Dupree has taken Ray’s credit card). It soon becomes difficult to figure out whether Ray is more interested in recovering his wife or his Ford Torino.

The novel soon turns into a road movie, and Ray Midge is meeting all sorts of misfits and crackpots, most notably Dr Reo Symes, a deregistered doctor. Symes is the novel’s central motif for the crazy side of American popular culture and belief. He worships self-help author and sales guru John Selmer Dix, who wrote what Dr Symes considers a classic rivaling the Bible and Koran, Wings as Eagles. To quote Symes’s colourful language, “Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse.” But Ray astutely figures out that the book is “nothing more than an inspirational work for salesmen.”

Dr Symes is a virtual factory of crazy business ideas and fanciful knowledge. He’s one of those hucksters who always has to have the last word, and makes the most extraordinary claims for his intelligence and personality. In one memorable scene he describes himself thus:

“I wasn’t raised a heathern. My mother and father gave me a loving home. They provided me with a fine medical education at Wooten Institute. I wore good clothes, clean clothes, nice suits from Benny’s. I had a massive executive head and a million-dollar personality. I was wide awake. I was just as keen as a brier.”

Things get even wackier when the reader is introduced to Dr Symes’s mother, Meemaw, and her friend, Melba. By this stage the novel becomes distinctly reminiscent of John Kennedy Toole’s classic A Confederency of Dunces, another novel about Southern eccentrics and misfits. Mrs Symes, or Meemaw, runs her own church and likes to show popular movies like Felix the Cat to children.

Mrs Symes is as sharp as a tack with a completely idiosyncratic view of the world. When she quizzes Ray on the bible, asking when Jesus turned six pots of water into wine, she asks whether it was alcoholic wine or unfermented grape juice that is described in the holy book. Ray guesses that it was wine, to which Mrs Symes responds “It’s your notion then that Jesus was a bootlegger?”

Charles Portis’s Human Comedy

The Dog of the South provides a sprawling panoramic view of a particular strain of American culture, with its mix of simple, uncomplicated religious belief and modern economics that seems to winnow the very life and meaning out of the country. This side of the American economy is best exampled in the almost religious devotion that Dr Symes has for John Selmer Dix, sales guru, author and most likely charlatan.

Charles Portis explicitly shows American economic activity as pretty much barren and unfruitful. The reader wonders how anyone ekes a living out of it:

“Leet’s Motor Ranch, a lesser dream, was a field of weeds that adjoined the factory grounds. It appeared to be more of a salvage yard than a used-car lot, more of a cemetery than a ranch.”

In another scene, Ray Midge laments at how pathetic and uneconomic he is, without a job and almost hitting thirty years old. “We are weaker than our fathers, Dupree.”

The Dog of the South provides a bleak and baron landscape, peopled with a host of strange and eccentric characters. Charles Portis is clearly a shrewd observer of people and events (it’s worth noting he spent years working as a journalist), giving his fiction a strangeness that also has the great ring of truth. Portis’s third novel is a comedy, but this doesn’t mean he makes laughs at other people’s expense. Amongst the many laughs, there’s a plaintive tone and sympathy for the humanity he describes.

The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis. Published by The Overlook Press. ISBN: 978-0-87951-931-5

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