The Dog of the South: Charles Portis (1979)

It’s only February but I can already tell that The Dog of the South, from Charles Portis, is likely to be the most peculiar book I will read this year. It’s essentially a road-trip novel–the story of Ray Midge–a man who sets off in search of his runaway wife, Norma. Norma has run off with her first husband, Dupree, taking Ray’s credit card and his beloved Ford Torino into the bargain. The nerve! If that’s not bad enough, Dupree has jumped bail, so also on Norma and Dupree’s trail is bail bondman, Jack. By following the trail of his stolen credit card, Midge tracks the runaway couple to Mexico and finally to Belize.

Norma was married to Dupree for 11 months, and Midge can’t understand why Norma ran off with her EX–his clothes are dirty and he’s unbalanced. In spite of the fact that Dupree is frequently beaten up in bars for spitting BBs at people, he never shies away from a fight. His confrontational personality always gets him in trouble but that trouble goes to another level when he starts writing threatening letters to the President. “He even challenged him to a fistfight on Pennsylvania Avenue.” Here’s one threat sent to the President:

This time it’s curtains for you and your rat family. I know your movements and I have access to your pets too.

To Midge, it’s a mystery what Norma sees in Dupree, but then again, she was showing tell-tale signs of restlessness:

She announced one day that she wanted to give a party in our apartment with the theme of “Around the World in 80 Days.” I couldn’t believe my ears. A party! She talked about applying for a job as stewardess with Braniff Airlines. She bought a bicycle, an expensive multi-geared model, and joined a cycling club against my wishes. The idea was that she and her chums would pedal along leafy country lanes, shouting and singing like a bunch of Germans, but from all I could see they just had meetings in the damp basement of a church.

I could go on and on. She wanted to dye her hair. She wanted to change her name to Staci or Pam or April. She wanted to open a shop selling Indian jewelry. It wouldn’t have hurt me to discuss the shop idea with her–big profits are made every day in that silver and turquoise stuff–but I couldn’t be bothered. I had to get on with my reading!

Midge may not understand why Norma ran off with Dupree, but it’s obvious to the reader that she ran away from her boring life with Midge. This becomes clear when Midge (who is planning on becoming a high school teacher) reveals a few tidbits about his marriage to Norma:

I think now this coolness must have started with our algebra course. She had agreed to let me practice my teaching methods on her and so I had worked out a lecture plan in elementary algebra. I had a little blackboard, green actually, that I set up in the kitchen every Thursday at 7 pm, for my demonstrations. It was not the kind of thing you like to ask a person to do but Norma was a good sport about it and I thought that if I could teach her ninth-grade algebra I could teach just about anything to anybody. A good sport, I say, but that was only at the beginning of the course. Later on she began to fake her answers on her weekly tests. That is. she would look up the answers to the problems in the back of the textbook and copy them without showing me her step-by-step proofs. But wasn’t this part of teaching too? Wouldn’t I have to deal with widespread cheating in the raucous classrooms of our public schools? I handled it this way with Norma. I said nothing about her dishonesty and simply gave her a score of zero on each test.

Along the way in this road-trip novel, Midge picks up Dr Symes, whose motor home, named Dog of the South has broken down. Dr Symes, who no longer practices, is a con-man on the way to Belize to try and talk his ancient, pickled missionary mother out of a piece of land. Symes is a know-it-all who follows the edicts of various shady gurus, and Symes constantly spouts spurious words of advice. While this is a road trip novel, it’s also a picaresque novel, so Midge meets the most incredibly bizarre people while he is hot on the trail of his wife. Since Midge’s car was stolen by Dupree, he has to drive Dupree’s “junker,” a car littered with Heath candy bar wrappers and a big hole in the floor.

The drive to Laredo took all day. Gasoline was cheap–22.9 cents a gallon at some Shamrock stations–and the Texas police didn’t care how fast you drove, but I had to be about sixty because at that point the wind came up through the floor hole in such a way that the Heath wrappers were suspended behind my head in a noisy brown vortex.

Midge’s voice is fresh and unique. He constantly punctuates his sentences with exclamation marks which somehow conveys a naiveté and also a zest for life. He’s going to need all that zest for life when he finally arrives in Belize. As with any picaresque novel, the book becomes a little wearisome in spots, but nonetheless, this is a lively, funny read, and I enjoyed it.



Filed under Fiction, Portis Charles, posts

4 responses to “The Dog of the South: Charles Portis (1979)

  1. Laughed out loud reading this review about the algebra tests. It is hard though to work out how old the characters are. Is Ray Midge young, or a late developer?

  2. Very tempted by this, I must admit. It sounds like a wild ride, in every sense of the phrase. I’ve only read True Grit by this author, so maybe it’s time to try more!

  3. I read that some think True Grit is his best. I’m out off by True Grit due to the film. Plus I want to wait before trying another by this author.

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