If his reputation today is any indication of its future, Charles Portis is destined to be remembered as the guy who wrote the novel that that movie was based on. What movie? True Grit, that’s what movie, and that’s unfortunate. First, because, of all the people who have seen True Grit, Sr. and True Grit, Jr. you could most likely count on your fingers the number of people who have actually read True Grit, the book. Second, because there are other Portis novels that deserve a little love. Take for instance his third novel, The Dog of the South.
This story, told through the eyes of Ray Midge, a naïve nerdy type whose main interests in life seem to be cars and military history, details his quest for, in the order of their importance, his Ford Torino, his credit cards, and his young wife, Norma; all of whom have run off with his friend and her first husband, Guy Dupree.
Ray is as quirky a character as you’re likely to come across. As he explains what has happened, his voice is calm and measured. He seems more annoyed by what has occurred than angered. He gets sidetracked easily, both as he tells his story and as he prepares to chase after his car. For example, he is delayed a whole day as he starts when he decides he needs to go back to his apartment to fetch his wife’s silver set. He is compulsive about inconsequential matters: what sort of motel to stay in, which side of a cup to drink from. At 26, he still hasn’t found his place in life. He has tried a number of different pursuits, but has been unable to stick with any of them. The one thing he does seem able to pursue, once he gets started, is this quest for his car.
Ray’s journey takes him from Little Rock, Arkansas, through Texas and into Mexico and ultimately to Belize, where Dupree’s family owned some land. As he travels, he meets up with a variety of oddballs even more peculiar than he is; one of whom, a Dr. Reo Symes, joins with him on the journey. Symes, who may at one time have been a real physician, is now little more than a con man. He had been traveling in a rundown school bus and is stuck in Mexico when Midge and he meet. When they discover they are headed in the same direction, Ray agrees to take him along.
This trope of the naïve young hero traveling along with a rogue companion is the classic pattern of the picaresque novel going back in some fashion to Cervantes. There are all sorts of variation, but Portis is clearly harking back to the tradition that includes books like, Candide, Joseph Andrews, and Huckleberry Finn; all of which have echoes in his novel.
When he finally gets to Belize, the cast of characters enlarges to include a young boy named Webster, who works at the Fair Play Hotel and seems to live in a box; two evangelical old ladies running a church program for children, a hippie artist and her young son among others. Each character seems stranger than the last. Altogether they make for delightful comedy, as each singlemindedly pursues his own hobby horse. Like Ray, they all seem to be bound by their own preconceptions. One of the old ladies badgers him about his knowledge of the Bible and his church going. Webster wants a Kennedy coin. Symes wants the rights to an island his mother, one of the old ladies, owns. Ray stoically manages to put up with all of them, even when they are behaving outrageously.
Published back in 1979, The Dog of the South holds up well. It moves along at the kind of fast pace we have become accustomed to in our novels in recent years, but more importantly it gives readers a chance to meet up with a crew of zanies that can’t help but make you smile — Ray Midge chief among them.