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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

From the very first sentence The Dog of the South pulls you into the cracked world of its amiable, misguided protagonist, an Arkansas cuckold named Ray Midge in hot pursuit of his wandering wife Norma and her lover (and previous husband) Guy Dupree, a political nutjob freshly bailed out of jail for threatening the President. Among other things, Norma and Guy have taken off with Ray’s well-maintained Ford Torino and his American Express card. Armed with the credit bills, Ray follows them south in Dupree’s rusted Buick Special.

In Mexico the credit trail runs cold and his money (well, his father’s money) runs out, but Ray runs into Dr. Reo Symes, “no longer practicing” but living out of a white-painted bus named The Dog of the South. Midge has a hunch Dupree is in British Honduras, and Symes, whose bus has broken down irreparably, is willing to fund the trip in exchange for the use of the Buick.

Symes is a comic creation without equal. He is brusque and rude and refuses to listen. He has a checkered past, having lost his medical license (which itself was of questionable origin) for numerous patent medicine schemes, and is currently on the run due to a misunderstanding about some missing funds for a curious vanity publishing project. Symes is obsessed with a reclusive writer of manuals for salesmen named John Selmer Dix. Symes is convinced that Dix is a peerless genius who has knowledge of the secrets of life and success. He is hurrying to his mother’s religious mission in Belize, where he hopes to convince her to turn over her property in Louisiana to him to use for any number of real estate schemes.

Midge himself is a twenty-six year old perpetual student, freed to pursue his variegated interests by a generous father. He owns thousands of books on military strategy and believes that this gives him an advantage over the great commanders of history. His most treasured possession is a recording of a lecture on the Civil War featuring recreated bird calls interspersed into the history.

Portis shows his genius in his portrayal of these insane characters. The trick is that insane people believe they are totally sane, something Portis deeply understands. Both Midge and Symes casually make revelations about themselves that would convince anyone of their worthiness of institutionalization. Near the end, when Midge reveals the reasons he is writing down his story, it is a perfect encapsulation of his nuttiness.

The plot of the novel sort of meanders once Midge and Symes make it to Belize, but a deus ex machina weather event forces circumstances into place for a walloping finale. Even when you lose the thread of the story, there is enough humor in Midge’s struggles to get through each day that you’ll be laughing too hard to care.

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