17 January 2013

Charles Portis: The Dog of the South (1979; repr. 2005)

Charles Portis is a Southern writer whose work has developed something of a cult status. He's reasonably well known for one of his five novels, True Grit (1968) – filmed by Henry Hathaway in 1969 and the Coen brothers in 2010 – but his others remain far more obscure. The Dog of the South was published some eleven years after True Grit, and also concerns a chase, this time from Little Rock, Arkansas, through Mexico to Belize. Ray Midge is the narrator, and his wife Norma has run off with her her ex-husband Guy Dupree (who is skipping bail after threatening the president), and they have taken with them Midge's credit card and his well-kept Ford Torino. Dupree has left behind his battered Buick with a hole in the driver's floor, and rather than call the cops Midge decides to follow them in it to Mexico.
On the way Midge picks up the con-man and struck-off doctor, Reo Symes, who has been living in a former school bus called 'The Dog of the South'. Symes wants to see his mother in Belize, as he has plans to turn a small island she owns into a hugely profitable business venture, but then Symes is full of these kinds of enthusiastic projects that the reader knows will come to nothing.
Ron Rosenbaum, who's been one of Portis's greatest champions, says in 'Of Gnats and Men: A New Reading of Portis' in the New York Observer that the novel  – which contains an epigraph by Sir Thomas Browne about the 'restlesse motions' of primitive life forms – is in essence about the 'tortile twists of the stream of consciousness', and I think a simple but useful illustration of this is the uncertain way the narrator sometimes describes things, doubletakes by correcting himself or hedging his bets, as when he gets a cab to pick up Dupree's car at the garage:
'The cabdriver let me out in front of a filthy café called Nub's or Dub's that was next door to the garage. Nub – or anyway some man in an apron – was standing behind the screen door and he looked at me.'
Many people find Portis a funny writer because he uses odd words, eccentric expressions. He writes about the insignificant, about everyday neuroses or fastidiousness that probably most people suffer from. Midge, for instance, anchors down his paper napkin by dipping his finger in the beer and wetting the corners because he doesn't want to look stupid carrying the napkin up to his mouth with the glass. And he drinks from the mug as a left-hander would because that side of the glass is less used. The interesting thing here, of course, is that Portis writes about things authors don't usually write about: inconsequential things. A friend of my aunt's once told her that he wouldn't lend her neighbor a book she wanted to borrow from him as she looked like the kind of person who licked her fingers before turning the pages – this is the kind of world that Portis's characters inhabit, talking about things that writers normally leave off the radar.
Conversations spring up as if from nowhere, and lead nowhere, although they're the kind of conversations people have in 'real life': 'real' people talk just the way Portis's characters talk. The apparent surrealism is the surrealism of everyday life. Leave a recording device in a room where a few people are, and on playback you might well hear such inconsequentialities, non sequiturs, repetitions, charades, interrogations, mindless insistencies, digressions, etc.
The Dog of the South is a good name, although we hear nothing more of it when Symes leaves the bus early on in the novel. And in fact for much of the novel, after Midge arrives in Belize with Symes, Symes largely disappears into the background, and we don't know what becomes of him in the end. Midge finds the sick Norma in hospital, nurses her to health and takes her back to Little Rock, but she soon leaves him to go to Memphis, and although it's not far away Midge doesn't follow her again: this is not a novel where things are tied up neatly at all. Which is fine.
If I agree with Rosenbaum that Portis is the States' 'least-known great writer' is another matter though. I shall have to read some more of his novels, and although I didn't like True Grit, I think I'm beginning to see what the attraction is.
ADDENDUM: A thought just came to me about Southern literature, and it's only a thought, but... Admittedly there is the traditional weirdness of Southern Gothic, but generally speaking Southern literature isn't seen as 'experimental', by which I essentially mean moving us well away from the constraints of 19th century literary practices. There's William Faulkner of course, Frances Newman, Barry Hannah, T. R. Pearson, and more recently there have been Padgett Powell and Selah Saterstrom but that appears to be all, although it seems to me that Charles Portis should be included in this category too.

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