Thursday, November 10, 2011

"He'd rather be funny": Charles Portis and "The Dog of the South"

My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October. They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also taken from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles. It was just like him to pick the .410 -- a boy's first gun. I suppose he thought it wouldn't kick much, that it would kill or at least rip up the flesh in a satisfying way without making a lot of noise or giving much of a jolt to his sloping monkey shoulder.

Now that Joel and Ethan Coen have their remake of True Grit to compare with director Henry Hathaway's original 1969 film, it may be time to for the brothers to consider a version of another Charles Portis story, The Dog of the South. The overlooked and long-out-of print 1979 novel, rescued from obscurity by Overlook Press in 2007, is a kind of a hundred-year bookend to the saga of Rooster Cogburn. As expected in the debauched and trembling era of the 1970s, Ray Midge -- even the name is a giveaway -- sets off in a wobbly quest made not of Cogburn's righteous vengeance but his own boozy, broke-down certainty: "I had to keep the Buick speed below what I took 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." What the Coen brothers could do with that!

Portis, whose filmed novels beside True Grit include the equally-deserving-of-praise Norwood, is now 77. His reclusiveness has only added to his cult status but also encourages admiration among other writers. He recently emerged to receive a lifetime achievement award from Oxford American magazine. Roy Blount, Jr. -- who himself is Decatur, Georgia born and knows a thing or two about such things -- has said that Portis “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.”

Midge, the passive-aggressive, neurotically-perfectionist hero of The Dog of the South, is given to fits of stifling rage in this imperfect world. In a kind of Mutt-and-Jeff comic pairing, Midge and his traveling companion Dr. Reo Symes make their way with Symes' Maytag-wringer Spanish, wandering wildly to British Honduras in search of the disappeared Norma. Like much of what has gone before things never go quite right. The motion of the novel is more Quixote than Candide, and the twenty-six year old Midge's expectations are varnished with resignation more than youthful aspiration:

Now she was gone. She had gone to Mexico with Guy Dupree, for that was where my dotted line led....The last receipt was just twelve days old. Our Mexican friends have a reputation for putting things off to another day and for taking long naps but there had been no snoozing over this bill. I looked at Dupree's contemptuous approximation of my signature on the receipt. On some of the others he had signed "Mr. Smart Shopper" and "Wallace Fard."

Here he was then, cruising the deserts of Mexico in my Ford Torino with my wife and my credit cards and his black-tongued dog. He had a chow dog that went everywhere with him, to the post office and the ball games, and now that red beast was making free with his lion feet on my Torino seats. In exchange for my car he left me his 1963 Buick Special.

(Charles Portis at this year's Oxford American gala)

The novel's observational writing is part Barry Hannah, part Hunter S. Thompson. Tom Wolfe included Portis in his 1970s survey entitled The New Journalism (along with Gay Talese and Wolfe himself, Portis wrote for many magazines early in his career), and his eye for detail can be witheringly funny: "She had golden down on her forearms and a little blue vein or artery that ran across her forehead and became distended or pulsed noticeably when she was upset or expressing some strong opinion," Midge says of his beloved Norma.

It's humor of a sort that would seem right for a Coen film, with a befuddled protagonist and a world askew, where many things just don't come around right:

"I dozed and woke again. Baby frogs with a golden sheen were capering about at my feet. They were identical in size and appearance, brothers and sisters hatched from the same jellied mass, and they all moved as one like a school of fish when I wiggled a foot. I looked at them and they looked at me and I wondered how it was that I could see them so clearly, their placid frog faces. Then I realized it was dawn. The frogs only looked golden. I was lying in the middle of the road and I had slept for hours. The world's number one piddler had taken to his bed again."

"Not about a dog," one Amazon reviewer writes in her one-star review, aghast at the sheer un-literalness of the book's title. Herewith, her entire review, a quite Portis-like example of smashed expectations: "I'm sorry, but this is not all that funny and it's not about a dog. If you want funny, read something by Bill Bryson, a funny man who also writes about real life. Anybody can write a silly story about nothing much."

Unsuspecting readers have been warned. The rest of us should take up pens and write to Joel and Ethan Coen without further delay -- The Dog of the South is a silly story about nothing much at all, and an almost perfect one.

(photo by Rett Peek, Arkansas Times)

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