The Dog Of The South (Charles Portis)

This is one of those books that will make you shake your head in wonder at how much contemporary fiction is dull, lifeless trash, just because it’s so subtle and hilarious that to admire its virtues is to bring the flaws of others into sharp contrast by implication. 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.  The prose style is very artful and the character of the doctor is an American type very reminiscent of the traveling hucksters and other marginal types found in Mark Twain’ or in O’ Tooles “Confederacy of Dunces”.

Ray Midge has constructed a sheltered existence for himself, structured and predictable, and though his attempts at getting a college degree have been stymied by his incapacity to follow a single field of study through, he’s not worried and regales himself with reading and drinking with his friend Guy Dupree. His world is punctured, though, when the same Dupree, fleeing from the law after proffering death threats on the president, heads down to Mexico with Ray’s credit card, car, and wife Norma. The book is an account of Midge’s attempt to get it all back by following Dupree into Belize and tracking him down. On the outset, Ray’s motivations are fuzzy. After all, he’s going after Dupree for three different reasons, and one wonders which he cares the most for: the credit card, the car, or his wife? Maybe he’s just bored and a bit weird.

It becomes clearer, as the story unfolds, that Midge is keen on redeeming his honour, to somehow show himself worthy of some kind of respect in this great big world. In the process, he meets a slew of colourful characters who, each in their own way, are striving to cut out a piece of world for themselves as well, and his perspective gradually shifts as being outside his initial comfort zone loses its’ sting and he allows himself to be invaded by the commonality he shares with Dr. Symes, a junkie ex-doctor, and Webster, a young boy who works as a gopher in the hotel where Ray is staying. The story is told in a charming kind of rigid stubbornness, and Ray never loses an occasion to point out how people make a mockery of him.

A common running gag in the book is how people continually call him by other people’s names, even toward the end when his own wife call’s him Guy, the name of the man who took her away from him. I really enjoyed the earnest tone, the laugh-out-loud self-deprecating, wry humour, and the occasional twinges of real emotion that occur in times when Ray is just too tired or battered to protect himself from the events unfolding around him. Also, when he does finally find his wife, the meeting is told in a way that is touchingly sincere and believable. Reading this I couldn’t help but admire the way a man will go after a woman who deserted him, trying to get her back, swallowing his pride in the process and not trying to punish her. He merely tries to reconstruct the fragile edifice of the relationship they once shared together.

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