Aaron Arnold's Reviews > The Dog of the South

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
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's review
Dec 17, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, favorites, read-in-2011
Read in February, 2011

This is one of those books that will make you shake your head in wonder at how much contemporary fiction is dull, lifeless trash, just because it's so subtle and hilarious that to admire its virtues is to bring the flaws of others into sharp contrast by implication. Portis is really clever about a lot of the things he does in this book, from the dialogue to the characters to the plot, but one thing that I didn't get until about halfway through the book was how much attention he paid to its structure: it's not just a simple litany of failure, it's a fractal of failure! Not only is the protagonist Ray Midge's main quest ultimately unsuccessful, but literally every single smaller aspect of it is too; absolutely nothing that anyone does in the entire course of the book succeeds at all. Midge's wife has run off to Central America with his car and one of his journalist coworkers; the car he drives down down after them tries to fall apart about once a chapter; when he talks to other people nobody listens to him; he never knows the answer to any questions he's asked; no one, not even his wife, remembers his name; he never has any money or cigarettes or a camera or anything useful; he has no friends; and even children don't really respect him. He's a total loser and everything about him is a drag, but it's impossible not to laugh whenever he ends up trapped in deadly unproductive non-conversations with someone like his passenger Doc Symes, a huckster failure on an even grander scale than he is. We've all met people who aggressively don't care about the routinized niceties of conversations, but Midge is such a chump that people talk over him and interrogate him for basically the entire book without him being able to do anything about it.

It's interesting to speculate on how much of the Midge character's personality is Portis himself - Portis was trained as a journalist (filling Karl Marx's old shoes at the New York Herald-Tribune, no less!) and from the few personal accounts of him that exist he seems to share a number of the more positive character traits with the quiet, nerdy, car- and Civil War-obsessed "star" of the book. There are some sly jokes about his own profession of writing, as Doc Symes keeps raving about an obscure Southern author who writes all of his books from the interior of a bus. But only a first-rate author with a rare gift for comic timing could tell the tale of this mope on a mission with such amazing dry humor. It's hard to quote good examples of the type of comedy Portis uses since it's so understated and subtle, but the cumulative effect on those who can visualize just how ridiculous these scenes would be in real life is tremendous; by the end of the book I was practically laughing out loud each time Midge couldn't catch a break.

I would compare its sense of humor somewhat to A Confederacy of Dunces, but with a little less slapstick and with a little more outright cruelty than is shown to the invincibly obese New Orleaner. If you've read True Grit (or seen it, since it's basically the same thing), then you should expect a somewhat different novel: a larger cast of characters, more sly about its action, but funnier and more relatable. There are plenty of great satires on religion and and relationships and all sorts of aspects of the human condition buried in this book, down to the most minute detail; you just have to keep a sharp eye for them. His ear for dialogue is absolutely flawless, and especially if you've grown up in the South you won't be able to avoid hearing the characters speak to you as if they were right in front of you. It's a real trick to tell a smart story with a dumb narrator, and Portis absolutely aces it here.
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Ms.pegasus Love your observation and phrasing: the "fractal of failure."

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