Dan's Reviews > The Dog of the South

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
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Mar 10, 11

Read in March, 2011

This is my first Charles Portis book, but not my last. If it's not a four-star book, it's very close.

A wild, erratic man named Dupree has jumped bail and fled Little Rock with Ray Midge’s Ford Torino. Also with Ray’s wife. Midge sets out to find them, following them through his credit card billings. (Yep. Dupree got that, too.) On Ray’s trip through Mexico and on into Belize, he encounters a number of oddball characters who will engage your attention. Eventually locates Dupree and the Ford Torino, but my summary of the story line stops here.

As reviewers and admirers usually say, Portis gives us characters who are distinct and distinctly odd. A major one here is Reo Symes, a con man who claims to have been a doctor before the medical profession turned against him. He boils over with a little paranoia and lots of changing enthusiasms for one crooked project after another. All he needs to do is to cheat his mother out of an island in the Mississippi where he can develop his grandiose plans. His mother, it happens, runs a “tabernacle” in Belize. Which is also where Dupree went. Ron Rosenbaum, whose own 1998 piece of enthusiasm is printed as an afterword, seems to find Symes the most interesting character. It’s true, Reo, or his life, can be funny. One of his scams was to develop a book to be called “Stout-Hearted Men,” which would provide materials about all of the Texas County Commissioners. (The money people fronted for the book disappeared and Symes moved on.)

But for me, the most interesting character is the narrator, Ray Midge himself. He’s a bit of a loser. At 26 he’s still trying various not very distinguished jobs, and as we begin the story, Dupree has taken car, wife, and credit card. Setting out to find them, Ray doesn’t have much of a plan. He takes his savings bonds to cash in as needed along the way, but forgets to cash them until he’s broke in Mexico, where no one will take them.

Ray has an odd take on what’s relevant. Yet he is neither dumb nor wholly ignorant; he’s just innocent, accepting, and wholly undiscriminating. He’s just as interested in the bird calls Dr. Buddy Casey inserts into his recorded account of the Siege of Vicksburg as he is in the history of actual battles. He doesn’t distinguish between matters of substance and matters of absolutely no consequence. What’s more, he has no meanness in him. He meets a number of characters who don’t always treat him well. Go ahead, laugh at Father Jackie, the Episcopal Priest in Belize who’s trying to be hip and modern. But don’t say Ray Midge told you to do that. He didn’t. Much less did Charles Portis, whose hand is completely hidden. It’s all way too gentle to be biting satire, but it is superb humor.

Ray’s irritations are mild and usually reserved for categories of people rather than particular individuals. He’s not grinding an axe when he complains of having only four hours sleep, and then thinks that a “lot of people, the same ones who lie about their gas mileage, would have said they got no sleep at all.” As to the innocence, check this out: Ray has a system about staying in motels. He sleeps in the cheap one, but dines down the street in the high class lodging, then considers his wife’s objection that they might be found out and humiliated for eating in the higher class motel when they were staying in the cheap one.

Ray as narrator never tries to impress anyone. He is utterly matter of fact in his rambling way when he speaks of George Washington: “The stuffed shirt, the pill–this sort of person had not always been regarded as a comic figure. . . . [I believed] that we shared many of the same qualities.” But not all, he adds. Washington had read only two books while Ray has read thousands. This is no more a boast than his self-perception that “I was always good at catching roach movement or mouse movement from the corner of my eye.”

Finally, if you want to know what happens to Ray and all the dark and zany gang in Belize, you’ll find out, at least about some of them. But it will be nowhere near as satisfying as getting to know Ray Midge.

Lest I’ve made this sound sunlit, I hereby declare that it is not. It has just enough shade in it to make it a wonderful comedy.
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