Friday, February 22, 2013

Dog of the South

Charles Portis is a writer probably best known for his novel, True Grit, which has been filmed twice. Portis has been a newspaper man, short-story writer, and author of essays for magazines like Harper's and The New Yorker. He lives in Arkansas.

His novels, as well reviewed as they are, were not always in print. But Portis has developed a cult-like following of aficionados, and after an article about him in a 1998 issue of Esquire his novels are now again available. It was good news to me. At one time I owned the first edition of my favorite Portis novel, The Dog of the South, published in 1979, and at some point in the 1990s either gave it away or sold it, and came to regret it.

As told in a collection of Portis’ work, Escape Velocity, A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings (2012, The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies), the title of the “Miscellany” comes from a line in The Dog of the South, when narrator Ray Midge says, “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”

Ray Midge is from Arkansas, but The Dog of the South is set in Mexico, and then in Belize, British Honduras. Ray has followed his wife, Norma, who with her lover, Guy Dupree, has taken Ray’s Ford Torino and run off. Ray follows in an old car in such disrepair that at some point he has to replace a broken motor mount with a jury-rigged contraption of coat hangers.

Ray’s descriptive powers are good in the novel's first person narrative, and here’s how he describes himself at one point, when he has a dispute with another man:
     “It was my guess that this queer was having big trouble selling his overpriced rabbits. That was the only way I could account for his manner. The hotel man became jolly and tried to patch things up. But this too annoyed the artist and he got up and flounced out, stopping for a moment under the archway as he thought of something pretty good to call me, which was ‘rat face.’
     “He thought it was pretty good but it was old stuff to me, being compared to a rat. In fact, I look more like a predatory bird than a rat but any person with small sharp features that are bunched in the center of his face can expect to be called a rat about three times a year.”
Ray has a no-detail-too-small style of narration, which would be tiring if he was the only one doing the talking. While traveling through Mexico Ray meets up with Dr. Reo Symes, making his way to Honduras in a school bus called “The Dog of the South.” The bus has broken down, so Symes accepts Midge’s offer of a ride and to share expenses. Reo is a con man, a real talker. When he’s talking he is as full of puff and bluster and non sequiturs as any carnival or snake oil pitchman. It’s mostly a one-sided conversation, as Symes can’t be bothered with Ray’s problems. Ray says:
     “He had no curiosity at all about my business. I told him about Norma and Dupree. He said nothing, but I could sense his contempt. I was not only a schoolboy but a cuckold too. And broke to boot.
     “He nodded and dozed whenever I was doing the talking, His heavy-crested head would droop over and topple him forward and the angle-head flashlight on his belt would poke him in the belly and wake him. Then he would sit up and do it over again.”
During the trip Symes warns Ray to be on the lookout for a “man named Ski,” who drives a car with Texas plates.
     “Let me know if you see him.”
     “Is there some possibility of trouble?”
     “There’s every possibility.”
     “You didn’t say anything about this.”
     “Get Ski out of sorts and he’ll crack your bones. He’ll smack you right in the snout, the foremost part of the body. He’ll knock you white-eyed on the least provocation. He’ll teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget.”
      “You should have said something about this.”
     “He kicked a merchant seaman to death down on the ship channel. He was trying to get a line on the Blackie Steadman mob, just trying to do his job, you see, and the chap didn’t want to help him.”
     “You should have told me about this.”
     “Blackie was hiring these merchant seamen to do his killings for him. He would hire one of these boys to do the job on the night before he shipped out and by the time the body was found the killer would be in some place like Poland. But Ski got wise to their game.”
That’s a pretty good example of Symes' line of chatter. The shaggy dog-story about Ski never really goes anywhere, but is full of enough fascinating details that we, like Ray, are sucked in.

The novel has been criticized in in at least one review I’ve read for “not having much of a story,” but it’s an Odyssey story. Ray keeps driving forward with a goal in mind. Events and people distract him. Eventually things work out, but in the meantime we’re treated to over 250 pages of this funny business, including this story that Reo tells Ray when they are in Belize, staying with Reo’s mother, a missionary.
     “That’s Felix the Cat. Mama loves a picture show. I brought her some cartoons and shorts when I was down here with Sybil, Felix the Cat and Edgar Kennedy and Ted Fiorito with his dance band. Mama loves a picture show better than anybody I know except for Leon Vurro. Listen to this, Speed. Here’s what I had to put up with. I would be in that hot cabin in south Houston . . . and Leon would be off downtown in some cool picture show watching Honky Tonk Women or Women in Prison. A grown man. Can you beat it? I’ve never wasted my time on shows. Don’t you know they’ve got those stories all figured out before you even get to the show? Leon would sit there in the dark like a sap for two or three hours watching those stories and then he would come out looking for women to squeeze. Not Bella but strange women. Oh, yes. I used to do it myself. There is very little folly I have missed out on in my life. I never wasted my time on shows but I was a bigger hog for women than Leon ever was. There was a time when I was out almost every night squeezing women but I stopped that foolishness years ago. A big waste of time and money if you want my opinion, not to mention the toll on your health.”
See what I mean?

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