Friday, July 29, 2011

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

I came across Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South in a second-hand book shop and was immediately drawn to it. The author of True Grit? A comedy? I hadn’t even realised that Charles Portis had written anything other than True Grit and, if he had, I would have expected more of the same. So I was curious.

You could argue there are strong similarities: protagonist has something taken from him and sets off on a chase to retrieve it, undergoing picaresque adventures along the way in the company of fellow oddballs. Yes, that sounds like Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn. And yet The Dog of the South is about as different from True Grit as it’s possible to be. Where True Grit is all buttoned-up Calvinist stoicism (albeit with a blackly humorous edge), The Dog of the South is a spaced-out study of sheer eccentricity, its protagonist a weird, almost autistic obsessive and his companions a collection of losers, dead-beats, fantasists and deficients. But – the key question for a humorous novel – is it funny? Hell, yes.

One day, Ray Midge’s credit card, Ford Torino and wife Norma are stolen by his friend – Norma’s ex-husband, Guy Dupree, whom Ray has just bailed out of jail where he was being held on a charge of threatening to kill the president. Of the three thefts, it is the loss of the Ford Torino that hurts Ray most. Subsequent credit card statements afford him a digital replay of the fleeing couple’s journey southwards to Mexico and into Latin America, giving him a vicarious overview of each stopover, meal, item of expenditure. Unable to bear the loss of his beloved Torino, he determines to follow them and retrieve it. His wife as well, perhaps, if circumstances allow, but the car remains his primary objective.

The story is told in the first-person by Ray. He is a journalist, or at least he was: he has quit in order to return to college. He is also a fan of military history, one of those people whose hobbies assume overwhelming importance. He is a man given to obsessive behaviour, with a peculiar outlook on life. A man given to exclamation marks! Because life is either black and white or it makes no sense! Indeed, Ray’s grasp of reality at times seems shaky. Watching a Johnny Weismuller film under the misconception that it is one of the Tarzan series, he is baffled by the fact that Tarzan seems to be working as a coast guard in Louisiana and everyone is calling him Dave. ‘A clever wrinkle,’ he thinks, Tarzan must be working on ‘undercover business,’ but nonetheless he waits impatiently for the jungle scenes to arrive. Which, of course, they don’t.

Ray is a remarkable creation, a genuine eccentric, a one-off. There is something of Ignatius J. O’Reilly in him, a complete inability to perceive himself as other might, but without O’Reilly’s overweening self-confidence. There is certainly something of Candide about him, an innocent abroad in a world that moves too quickly for him to comprehend. His tendendency to worry about anything and everything is like something out of Woody Allen, while his compulsive behaviour, his inability to put things into perspective recall Don Quixote tilting at his windmills. His failure to see the world from anyone’s point of view but his own is pure Bartleby and his innocence and lack of worldliness give him the same vital appeal as Huck Finn.

Ray sets off from home in Little Rock in Dupree’s battered Buick, following the credit card trail into Texas and onto Mexico. There, broke, he meets Dr Reo Symes, the owner-occupier of the Dog of the South, a nicely painted but not very mobile bus. Symes needs to travel but, with the bus irreparably damaged, he has no vehicle; Ray has a vehicle but no money with which to buy fuel: an agreement is reached, and Symes bankrolls their journey into British Honduras, where Ray believes Dupree and his car (and wife) have gone.

If Ray is a wildly inventive comic creation, Dr Symes makes him appear bland. He is a modern-day snake-oil salesman, debarred from practicing medicine because of his overwhelming (and, despite the evidence, continuing) faith in a miracle cure for arthritis. He is also fleeing creditors in relation to a gloriously failed vanity publishing venture. He conducts his life according to the teachings of John Selmer Dix, a thrusting salesman whose manuals on selling technique Symes somehow manages to read as primers for life. And Symes’ own primer for life dictates that he should move into real estate, to which end he is now hurrying to Belize to find his mother and persuade her to turn over the family property and wealth to him. Disaster ensues.

It takes courage and skill to write a novel in which insanity infests both main characters. Even in Catch-22, Yossarian is an approximation of normality, while the afore-cited Confederacy of Dunces has the almost rational Myrna Minkoff to act as a counterfoil to O’Reilly. But, in The Dog of the South, Portis takes matters even further: no-one in this novel appears to be remotely in possession of their faculties. That Portis gets away with it is testament to his writing abilities.

Underneath the humour, of course, there is a point. This is a serious book masquerading as whimsy. The main characters, wildly different, nonetheless share certain characteristics which, through their exaggerated forms, combine to throw a light on the rest of us and our own little preoccupations and hopes and fears. In Ray, we have a man who is obsessive, who worries over pointless detail, who relates events with painful, sometimes pointless, exactitude. He is restless, always seeking to get it right, to make things right, to live in a world where things are habitually right. Thus, he is always in search of something, some measure of control through which he can slow down the world and adapt it to his tastes and preferences. And, similarly, Dr Symes’s obsession is with the salesman Dix, the man who has, Symes believes, decoded life and living, has found the elusive key to everything. And so both of them are in pursuit of the impossible. They are searching for an ideal, like John Grady Cole in All The Pretty Horses, like Ahab in Moby Dick, like Bartleby.

Like all of us, really.

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