Jan 17, 11
Read from January 03 to 16, 2011
The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis, is an excellent character study. Instantly, from the first page, we get the feel of the MC, Ray Midge. His rambling voice and shifting, uncertain personality are key to the story. There isn't much in the way of plot, as this is not commercial, mainstream fiction. I would classify it as Southern fiction, and thus falls somewhere between mainstream and literary. In The Dog of the South Portis has chosen a more literary, roaming style than his previous works, such as True Grit, which features a more mainstream plot treatment.
Portis' story comes alive through carefully chosen names, nicknames, nameplaces and seemingly insignificant events. The reader identifies with Portis' characters through their untidy lives, their loose ends and quirky, unfulfilled wants and desires which are never satisfied. The depth of the story derives from strong characterization, particularly with Dr. Reo Symes and Guy Dupree. The character of Symes is most interesting, and is worthy of a complete novel on its own. He lives in a complete fantasy world, living out of a beat-down old school bus he calls "The Dog of the South". He is completely full of himself and the ultimate fast-talking con artist.
Symes' fascination with the never-seen character of Dix is most interesting. Dix has written a book on motivational sales strategy that Symes is enamored with. Symes worships the character of Dix like a god. However, we never meet Dix. Dix represents this obsession with perfection and the unreachable, the unachievable. Supposedly Dix has written many more unpublished books on motivation and sales and stuffed them in his trunk, which has been lost to the world. It is this trunk of unattainable knowledge that Symes longs for, almost like the quest for the holy grail. The reader knows that Symes will never amount to anything, nor ever meet Dix.
Symes is a likeable character, and perhaps the most interesting in the book. Symes wants to take over his mother's real estate property in Louisiana and dreams up various unrealistic schemes to turn the island into a resort for hunting, theme park or wall-to-wall oil wells. Of particular interest is Symes' usage of language as he describes 50-pound sewer rats from Paris, France and selling birthstones and "vibrating jowl straps" (whatever that is).
Midge's nemesis is Guy Dupree, who has run off with his wife Norma to Mexico. Midge traces their steps by plotting their course using the Texaco card receipts as they came in the mail. Dupree is a study in denial. He never admits he did anything wrong and is even more stubborn than Midge. When the two face off in Belize the reader gets the feeling that these two are one of a kind.
I really liked this novel. It resonated with me and I will remember these characters a long time. It is this kind of rarely achieved effect that makes a novel shine and stand the test of time. I do have some criticisms, however. I think Portis lost some of the momentum of the "nothingness" of the novel when Midge goes to fill sandbags to ward off the incoming tropical storm. This had the feel of a more plot-driven story at this point and detracted from the personae of the book. Portis would have done better by sticking with the characters and their inability to make decisions or do anything about their sordid lives. This is where the strength of the novel comes from--and its resonating identification with the reader.