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.


  1. That not many people read Portis gets to me, because I'm so sure that once someone reads him they will never, ever shut up about him. Even with the Coen brothers film out, and "True Grit" turning into a big seller, the biggest response I got to the "True Grit" review I did a few months ago was "huh? this is a BOOK?"

    So many things to love about "Dog", but I think my favorite is that Ray's major concern seems to be not recovering his wife but his car.

    -- ellen

  2. this sounds like I should just grab my hip flask, climb on my bike & head off out to get this. not read Portis, probably because of that Wayne geezer, but this sounds an ideal place to commence.As for the phrase "We are book nerds",I prefer the more confrontational "Book Fiends" as nerd has to many negative connotations.
    I raise my glass

  3. Hi, not heard from you for awhile, how's things?

  4. @Parrish - The Dog of the South post is by Aaron, though it's one of my favorites as well. I'm taking an unintended break due to (1) my poorly-conceived Patrick O'Brian Challenge, which has me consumed, and (2) a novel on the edge of completion after more than three years. I should be back posting soon. In the meantime, I hope all is well with you. Best, Patrick

  5. Perhaps the funniest book I have read.

  6. hi all, like i said before, just learning to operate this computing device and catching up on comment backlogs. who knew it could do more than just download pirated music?

    Ellen -amen sister! i have know idea why Portis hasn't gotten the acclaim he deserves. i don't knoew where to begin when listing my faves from this book but i really enjoy the banter between Ray and Dr Symes. priceless.

    Parrish -from one 'book fiend' to another, this is one of my favorites. i hope you enjoy it.

  7. I first read this book at a library sale. I stood beside a table full of plastic bound hardbacks and realized I had read several chapters--laughing all the while--and that I could take the book home with me for fifty cents, which I did. It has become a favorite of mine, and I'm now using it for the second time in classes I teach, this one to graduate writing students. It's a beautifully written book, I'd say a miracle, or what passes for a miracle in fiction. The next best book is Masters of Atlantis, which must be read after Dog of the South. The rest is up to you. But do read Dog!