Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Dog Of The South: Not Your Typical School Bus Ride Through Mexico

Here at The Literate Man our primary mission (aside from stopping plate tectonics and fomenting small revolutions) is to share the gift of literature with our fellow man, woman and child. We are book nerds, to be sure. And we like to share the books and writers we like; books and names that don’t often appear at airport bookstores or in Oprah’s Book Club, but have nonetheless brought us a great deal of delight and hope they might do the same for you.

Charles Portis is one of our favorites and if it wasn’t for sloth and fantasy football we would have shared our thoughts on this great man of letters long ago.

Almost every red-blooded American is familiar with Portis’ most famous work: True Grit. Whether it’s the John Wayne original or the Cohen Brothers remake, Portis’ terrifically-titled novel has carved out a place in the English lexicon.

But it’s The Dog of the South that is Portis’ real masterpiece. This is the kind of work that makes us cavalier in heaping praise like “genius,” “hilarious,” and “even funnier than Lethal Weapon II.”
The plot is thin. The narrator is unreliable. The story lacks resolution. And it’s absolutely perfect.

From the simple opening sentence of this book (“My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.”) a wild adventure featuring a cast of Southern wierdos is hatched.
The protagonist and narrator through this ill-conceived odyssey from Arkansas to British Honduras (present-day Belize) is Raymond E. Midge, an aspiring algebra teacher and military enthusiast looking to reclaim his stolen wife and car -not necessarily in that order. In a turn of fair play Midge steal’s Dupree’s Buick (“a rusty little piece of basic transportation” with a hole in the driver’s side floor board) and the chase is on.

Halfway through Mexico he stops to help an elderly man in a broken-down school bus (with the moniker ‘Dog of the South’ painted on its side) and becomes entangled with the indefatigable Dr Reo Symes. Symes is a typical Portis eccentric who’s on his way to Belize, where his mother runs a church, to talk her out some property in the US (he envisions opening up a theme park devoted to Jefferson Davis). These two characters come to depend on one another as they follow the trail of the elusive “lovebirds” and battle with tropical storms, hippies, “dopers”, car troubles and each other’s own idiosyncrasies.
Portis unravels this disastrous jaunt through Mesoamerica at a brisk pace that makes the 256 pages fly by. Throughout the many comical exchanges he displays his gifts for writing dialogue, creating unforgettable characters and reveals a world much broader than the two ridiculous men that carry the story.

It’s regrettable that this book, and Portis himself, have not received a wider audience. Perhaps this shameless plug (and maybe that Oscar thing, too) will lead a few more people to discover his gifts.
If you like reading and you like laughing you’ll like this book. And if you do like it, please share it with someone else who might appreciate it as well.