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The Dog Of The South by Charles Portis


We must purge our heads, and our
rancorous hearts too.
Charles Portis currently serves as my literary palette cleanser. Between long, meaty meals of literary or indeed any sort of fiction wherein my patience and stomach is tested to the max, a sweet, sharp bowl of Portis resets my flagging will ready for the next serving. His sorbet is a particular blend of surrealism and realism, all usually hung on a mythological hero quest.

Ray Midge is just one such 'hero', whose own personal quest might carelessly be derided as rather meaningless–he's out to find his car, and with it, his wife and her ex-husband with whom she's run off. Not that he particularly wants her back; he just loves his Torino. With only a box of silver cutlery and his credit card receipts he tracks the fugitives to Mexico, where he meets dyspeptic dipsomaniac Dr Reo Symes, owner of the eponymous and defunct bus The Dog Of The South, and who requires a ride to Belize to see his mother so he can talk her into bequeathing to him a plot of land in the middle of a river. Along the way he grudgingly at first shares his knowledge of the writings of John Selmer Dix M.A., a writer to eclipse all others (“Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse.”), particularly the work With Wings as Eagles, a svelte manuscript which should inspire all travelling salespersons to greater heights of itinerant selling. Not an unusual trope in a Portis novel you may have noticed...

Things do not go well.

Of course, Midge gets his girl (although the car is a write-off), but, in a discomfortingly off-hand way, right at the very end, Midge reports that Norma runs off to Tennessee and he's not unhappy to see her go. The Doc, well, he disappears never to be seen again.

It's a typical novel, of the few that I've read, by Portis. The protagonist (and narrator) is earnest but ill-informed, and is quickly overtaken by events (events, dear boy, events*) until he is lost far more than that for which he went in search. However, the commonalities don't end there. The cast of characters drift in and out, some never to return, some to pop up unexpectedly like the bail bondsman Jack Wilkie. It's immediately funny, it's deeply funny, and it's reflectively funny; it's odd, and unsettling, and brilliant. Just the thing with which to put Tad Williams to bed.


*Thanks, Harold MacMillan

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