Charles Portis has drawn widespread critical acclaim for his inventive prose. In The Dog of the South, Ray Midge is on the trail of his wife, Norma, who’s headed for Mexico with her ex-husband. On the way Ray meets the eccentric Dr. Reo Symes, a man with more get-rich-quick schemes than common sense. Together, they’ll have to overcome tropical storms, grifters, and plenty of car trouble en route to their destination—wherever that may be.
©1979 Charles Portis (P)2012 Recorded Books, LLC
In a small, peaceful town on the Equator, the sun always sets at 6, and a good audiobook is always the perfect evening companion.
Reviewers typically give up when it comes to the work of Charles Portis, saying in one way or another that it simply can’t be described. That’s just how I feel after hearing “A Dog of the South” and learning of him for the first time, long after I should have. It is a rambling little yarn of the Deep South in the 1970s—so Deep that it rambles into Belize. The characters are a tattered, mismatched bunch of shifty failures, grifters, evangelists, shallow dreamers and a couple of weird children, all of whom, for some reason, are easily imagined as shadowy figures in the dim light of a bare bulb in some rundown hotel.
Ray Midge’s friend has stolen his wife and his car and headed to Mexico and beyond, and Ray goes after them—to retrieve his car. The people and puzzlements he encounters are beyond imagining. The plot is a barely-necessary device to support the author’s hilarious and inventive prose. For example, he arrives at the steamy, seedy Fair Play Hotel in Belize and meets the night clerk:
“She woke a small Negro boy named Webster Spooner, who slept in a box in the foyer. It was a pretty good wooden box, with bedding in it. I knew his name because he had written it on a piece of paper and taped it to his box. At the foot of his makeshift bed, there was a tomato plant growing in an old Texaco grease bucket.“
The first sentence would be plenty good by itself, but Portis piles on unexpected details that yield rich and riveting descriptions of an exceedingly strange world. It is deliciously funny.
As I said, it can’t be described. The soft Southern accent of David Aaron Baker provides the perfect first-person voice for Ray Midge—a decent fellow with good intentions and vague ambitions you know he will never realize. But listening to his zany adventure unfold is an excellent way to spend eight hours. You won’t regret it.
But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - J.D. Salinger ^(;,;)^
I tell you I can't answer questions like that. You see me as a can-do guy from the States, but I don't have all the answers. I'm white and I don't dance but that doesn't mean I have all the answers.”
― Charles Portis, The Dog of the South
Charles Portis isn't God. But I believe he can do no wrong and can walk on water when I read his books. In fact, while reading his novels, the exact feeling I get can only be described as eating an overcooked eucharist; some crunchy, holy, wafer of truth that has been burnt by the absurdity of the modern world. I open the world-weary pages of a Portis novel and suddenly I am taken-up in a vision that contains the body and the blood of all that is great with American Fiction. He reminds me of some unholy combination of Cormac McCarthy and Walker Percy -- with a bit of Saul Bellow thrown in for flavor.
Let's get out of the way: the truth. This is the same dude from Arkansas that wrote True Grit. Great book. Fantastic novel and both movies were fantastic. Great. Good. Hallelujah! Now let's put that away. There is so much more to Charles Portis than just one amazing book. This isn't some one-hit wonder novelist. This guy is the real deal. Serious, put him next to Flannery O'Connor. Yes, he is that fantastic. OK, perhaps, we can't get ahead of ourselves. So, put him close to Flannery, looking up at her, but not with a craned neck. Roy Blount, Jr. has posited that "No one should die without having read [The Dog of the South]". Ron Rosenbaum thinks Charles Portis is America's Gogol. I shit you not.
Basically, the story is about a man's search for his runaway wife. She has run off with her ex-husband to Mexico and Belize and the narrator, Ray Midge, is going to track them down. This is a world where cars don't run well, the pelicans get struck by lightening, and people and fabricators, are either running to something or away from something. This is a book that is as much about figuring out where one is and where one belongs. It reminds me of that space which exists for a brief second between sleep and wake, after a crazy dream, where one is unsure about which side of the fog is real; and question gets begged which side of the fog one really belongs.
David Aaron Baker deserves an Oscar (whatever the appropriate equivalent might be) for his performance. He demonstrates a complete grasp of the written work and an impeccable sense of timing and delivery as he brings the characters of this charming work alive. Charles Portis must listen to this and marvel at how Raymond and Dr. Symes and the British Hondurans come alive in his novel. Confederacy of Dunces is the only equivalent I have encountered.
The interaction of Raymond and the cast of characters he encounters is wonderful. But any reader will recognize that Portis' ear for dialogue is uncanny. A reader who can make those encounters echo two adversaries, without the benefit of a writer's use of the printed page to identify speakers, is one of a kind. Baker is in rare form.
Laugh. Wonder. Learn.
One of a kind.
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