‘The Dog of the South’ by Charles Portis – A Road Trip and a Shaggy Dog Story

 

‘The Dog of the South’ by Charles Portis    (1979) – 256 pages

 

I had read a few articles on how sparkling and lively is the picaresque style of Charles Portis. Now that I have just read ‘The Dog of the South’, I remain entirely unconvinced.

Here we have a bunch of good old white boys and good old white girls. These white Southern characters in ‘The Dog of the South’ use the foulest bigoted epithets on those of different races who are around them, yet they are all scam artists and/or fools themselves. I suppose that makes this a true Southern novel.

Our first person narrator is 26 year old guy from Arkansas Ray Midge. Another guy named Dupree has run off with Ray’s wife and Ray’s 1968 Ford Torino, and left him with a 1963 compact Buick Special, and Ray ultimately travels through Texas and Mexico to British Honduras (now Belize) in Central America to recover them. Ray is more anxious to get the Ford Torino back than his wife, as the 1963 Buick Special leaks transmission fluid and has a hole in the floorboard in front of the driver’s seat.

Did you get your sweetie back?”

I’m not trying to get her back. I’m trying to get my car back.”

This is a shaggy dog story and a road trip novel, a long rambling joke.

There is a lot of talk of car problems like loose fan belts and bad fuel pumps and puddles of transmission fluid under the car, the kind of car problems which were a lot more common in the 1970s than they are today. It reminded me of the early times when I had to drive old used cars, and you never knew what would happen next.

On his long drive, Ray picks up Dr. Reo Symes, the opinionated fool who claims to be a medical doctor. ‘The Dog of the South’ is the legend that was painted on the white bus that Dr. Reo Symes was driving through Mexico when it broke down and he was picked up by our hapless narrator.

Portis captures the bigoted talk of two white guys from the South in casual conversation. He probably couldn’t get away with writing some of this racist stuff today. Somehow I failed to see the humor in these white Southern bigoted yahoos.

I just don’t have the required patience to calmly read pointless page after pointless page, but pointlessness was the whole point. Somehow I did manage to read the entire novel; however I muddled through it.

 

Grade:    C-

 

 

8 responses to this post.

  1. Such a shame, because True Grit is so wonderful. I’m taking this one off my wishlist.

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    • Hi Annabel,
      I’ve watched the Coen Brothers version of True Grit, not the John Wayne one. The movie was fine as most Coen brothers ones are. I have not read the novel and probably won’t.

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  2. I agree (with enthusiasm) with Annabel about True Grit. It’s a great American novel that I re-read every 5 or 6 years or so.
    But — my experience in trying a different Portis novel was very similar to yours. In my case I attempted Masters of Atlantis but couldn’t muster very much interest and gave it up pretty quickly. I was really disappointed, as I had expected to love it.
    Was one of the Portis pieces you read by Donna Tartt in the NYT? In case not, here’s the link although you’re probably not in the mood for it right now! https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/09/books/charles-portis-true-grit-dog-of-the-south-gringos-masters-of-atlantis.html
    As for the bigotry — alas, it’s generally a problem with many books from certain regions/eras. I re-read Huck Finn seven or eight years ago and found it made me quite uncomfortable at times.

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    • Hi Janakay,
      I did now read the article of Donna Tartt you sent. That was one Southerner admiring another Southerner. I have admired some Southern writers like William Faulkner and John Kennedy Toole and Eudora Welty, but I certainly don’t give extra points just for being from the South. Sometime I must read a novel by Donna Tartt.
      I suppose when white Southern writers can acknowledge the humanness of those people who are different from themselves, there might be a better place on my reading list for them. 🙂

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      • Hi Tony: I differ a bit regarding the Donna Tartt piece. While she clearly liked Portis and responded to their common regional background, I saw it more as one very skilled writer expressing admiration for another writer whom she regarded as a master of his craft.
        I haven’t read Portis’ Dog of the South (I must admit, I’m now very curious about it!) so really can’t comment on the specifics. I do think your review raised the very interesting question of just how much weight we should give to moral issues in assessing a work of art. Many won’t now read Faulkner because they find his racial attitudes repellent (Michael Gorra’s new biography, The Saddest Words: Wm Faulkner’s Civil War, has a lot to say about this). Ditto for Huckleberry Finn. Anyway, it’s a complicated issue (far too much for blog remarks, n’est-ce pas?)
        I’m a big fan of two of Donna Tartt’s three novels (The Little Friend is the exception), my favorite being The Goldfinch. It’s a major time commitment, however; also it might leave you cold if you don’t like the visual arts, as it’s heavy on painting.

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        • Hi Janakay,
          Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were probably the first two works of somewhat-adult literature I read as a boy, and I still retain an affection for them. Although he does use the N-word, I thought his portrayals of black people were quite positive. I went through a long Faulkner phase too, and did not find his work obnoxious either. I’m not too dogmatic on the race issue (I hope), but with all the nasty cruel white idiots around lately, I’m probably getting more dogmatic.
          I’ve wanted to read Donna Tartt, but the size of her works have intimidated me so far.
          I probably was tougher on Charles Portis than I had reason to be.

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  3. Posted by Charles Behlen on January 7, 2022 at 12:20 AM

    Have to admit that I liked MASTERS OF ATLANTIS more. And, of course, there’s TRUE GRIT. But who doesn’t find scenes from the two film versions muscling into their consciousness when they read the novel? It’s a problem that plagued my reading of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Peck’s Finch is simply better than the one in the book.

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    • Hi Charles,
      I suppose Gregory Peck in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was a little too perfect for my taste. I probably prefer Fred MacMurray in ‘Double Indemnity’ who was a total bad guy.
      I see that IMDB actually rates the Coen version of ‘True Grit’ with Jeff Bridges at 7.6, higher than the John Wayne version at 7.4.

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