Friday, May 30, 2008

The Dog of the South

When Ray Midge’s wife, Norma, runs off with her former husband, Guy Dupree, Ray sets out after them -- not so much to reclaim Norma but to get back his Ford Torino and his credit cards.

The chase, if it can be called that, is a rather desultory affair that leads eventually to Mexico and Belize.

Along the way Ray encounters Dr. Reo Symes, a rogue of the same ilk as Dupree, and a bail bondsman named Jack Wilkie. All are typical Portis characters, eccentric, self-absorbed, and ineffectual.

Ray is a sweet oddball, while Dupree and Symes are pathetic con men. Here’s Symes reflecting on an earlier incident in his medical career:

"A patient named J.D. Brimlett developed osteomyelitis,” said the doctor. “That was the claim anyway. I’m convinced he already had it. He had everything else. Emphysema, glaucoma, no adrenal function, you name it. Two little hard dark lungs like a pair of dessicated prunes.

"He belonged in a carnival instead of an arthritis clinic. The world’s sickest living man. No blood pressure to speak of and you couldn’t find a vein to save your ass. Renal failure on top of everything else. The Mayo brothers couldn’t have pulled that chump through, but no, it was my zinc that killed him. A class B irritant poison, they said.

"I should have screened him out. I should have closed my eyes and ears to his suffering and sent him on his way. I didn’t do it and I’ve been paying for that mistake ever since. There’s always a son of a bitch like Brimlett hanging around, doing anything to get attention, dying even and just ruining things for everybody else. Do you want it in a nutshell? I was weak. I was soft."

Symes has a broken-down schoolbus named "The Dog of the South," which makes a brief appearance early in the book. Using it as the novel's title suggests that other journeys in the book will end up in a similar state, for the characters themselves are leading broken-down lives.

Charles Portis is a former marine and newspaperman (New York Herald Tribune). He’s written five unusual comic novels: Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos. His gentle portrayal of eccentrics, typified by self-serving monologues and folksy expressions (“in a nutshell”), have made him something of a cult figure.

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