David's Reviews > The Dog of the South

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
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's review
Feb 20, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: portishead
Read in February, 2011

When I say something is funny and you say something is funny, I'm usually not sure if our funnies are congruous—or even related, really. For instance, I've been told (by 'them') that The Hangover was a great American comedy, but I'll be honest with you... there were more honest-to-goshness laughs in Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata for me. Like in that ripsnorting scene where Liv Ullmann's crippled daughter crawls out of her bedroom in a crime of melodrama so egregious that even drag queens would roll their sparkly-shadowed eyes. Bitch, please. All it needed was a kazoo soundtrack, and then abracadabra: sublimity, pure sublimity! But The Hangover had about as many yuks-per-minute as a holocaust museum. Let me get this straight... some doofuses party and can't remember anything the next day! Wow, that's fantastic! And there's a tiger! And a naked Asian! Ha ha ha ha! I've already signed up to pre-order The Hangover 2 on Amazon!

Anyway, this is all in the way of a disclaimer. When I say that The Dog of the South might just be the funniest novel I've ever read, you should not jump to any conclusions. It might be like reading an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross book for you. My sense of humor is particular. I [generally] don't go in for outright silliness or slipping-on-banana peels or pies-in-faces or Will Ferrell. Poor Will. I want to give him points for trying so damn hard all the time. You can see that he really, really, really wants to be funny, and it's his dream in the same way that other boys want to be astronauts, firemen, or high-stakes drug dealers. But wow. Effort only goes so far.

The Dog of the South is the exact kind of humor I like. It's the story of this twentysomething loser named Ray Midge (it's okay—this is the 1970s, well before the slacker and hipster eras) whose wife Norma leaves him for her first husband Dupree, a wannabe leftist radical who is really just an Arkansas redneck with authority issues. Not only that. Dupree steals Midge’s car and credit card and takes off with Norma through Texas and Mexico—eventually arriving in British Honduras. Ray follows their trail via credit card charges in a car with a hole in the floor accompanied by the eccentric and criminal Dr. Symes who hitches a ride to Honduras where he plans to persuade his missionary mother to turn over her island real estate to him so that he can build a luxury nursing home on it. Ray, needless to say, is hapless and bewildered. Dr. Symes is irritable and elliptical. They make for a strange pairing.

The novel is told from the idiosyncratic perspective of Midge who spends much of the novel taking in the strange world he lives in. He is something of a hick—likely by his own admission—who knows about cars and guns, as a matter of course, but he is, at the same time, self-deprecating, half-assed-worldly, and very, very smart. He has a talent for feeling people out and reacting accordingly. But his isn’t the reactive humor of, say, Bob Newhart who deadpans his exasperation at the inscrutable and intractable world in which he lives; no, Midge takes everything in stride—each and every peculiarity and catastrophe. The world, odd as it is, is something to marvel at, sure, but not for long. When all the marveling’s done, a crooked doctor, a deranged, gun-wielding radical, and a sudden hurricane are just more things-on-top-of-things to contend with.

Also, Midge has no idea that he’s funny. Not one clue. And that’s what magnifies the humor. There are no spaces kept clear for a laugh track. And none of those needy inflections reserved for the delivery of one-liners. It’s the totality of Midge’s addled but persevering perspective that frames a comedy he can’t quite recognize because he’s standing nose-to-nose with it.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by j (new)

j i read true grit a year or so and vowed to read everything portis ever wrote (which is pretty easy since that amounts to four books). i need to get on that.

David Five books! But I'm going to read them all too. They're like delicious desserts. Or something.

message 3: by j (new)

j i meant four more books. (actually i did not, i have somehow never noticed gringos before.)

Msmurphybylaw Great review Speed.

David Thanks!

Teri Zipf There's a movie, too!

David Rickert Whatever happened to Portis?

Msmurphybylaw I believe he is a hermit somewhere in Mexico.

Melki I love your description of Dupree - a wannabe leftist radical who is really just an Arkansas redneck with authority issues.

message 10: by Jeff (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jeff Tucker This is my favorite Charles Portis book. You absolutely nailed it with this review. You managed to put into words some of the qualities that I liked so much about the story. Excellent, insightful review.

Carrie Ditto what Jeff said. And writing the whole review in Midge's voice? Brilliant!

message 12: by Jane (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jane Mettee I haven't finished it yet but I find it hilarious. I am listening to it and the reader reports these events in an understated monotone that makes it even funnier. I also hated Hangover. Loved Confederacy of Dunces.

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