Friday, April 30, 2010

"It's your notion then that Jesus was a bootlegger?," or, Riding along with Charles Portis

{Photoz by rocketlass.}

At the urging of Ed Park, about ten days ago I read Charles Portis's The Dog of the South (1979). And . . . wow. Imagine an absurd blending of the Kafka who used to double his friends up with laughter when he read his stories; those nightmares wherein there's something you desperately need to do but are forever being drawn away from--only recast in the tone of a silent fim comedy; and the showmanship, shadiness, and hucksterism of Melville's The Confidence-Man.

The result is unlike anything else I've ever read, crammed from start to finish with oddballs, dropouts, and failures, all of whom cling to this world all the more intensely for the fact that they can't quite figure out what to do with it. Ray Midge, the energetically sad-sack copy editor who is the novel's protagonist, seems to regard all the world's facts as equally important; though paring them down or assigning importance might reveal hints of a pattern, it's as if he feels an obligation not to discriminate, as if each and every detail deserves his full care--as if the world is a manuscript, and his job is to check it out. It's as admirable as it is crazy, and when he sets out on a road trip to Latin America to retrieve his runaway wife, the reader can't help but harbor some hope that, when he finds her, she'll see his awkward strangeness that way, too.

I realize that's not the most articulate account; in some sense I feel like I'm still recovering from the book. For a more considered--but just as enthusiastic--take on this book and Portis in general, you should check out Ed's article from the March 2003 issue of the Believer. Meanwhile, I'll just pass on a scene that gives a sense of Portis's off-kilter humor. Midge has just washed up in Belize in the company of Dr. Reo Symes, confidence man, scam artist, and owner of a nonworking bus named The Dog of the South. Symes has fallen ill and is to be delivered to his mother and her friend Melba, who
ate heartily for a crone, sighing and cooing between bites and jiggling one leg up and down, making the floor shake. She ate fast and her eyes bulged from inner pressure and delight. This remarkable lady had psychic gifts and she had not slept for three years, or so they told me. She sat up in a chair every night in the dark drinking coffee.
Mrs. Symes quickly starts in on Midge with a barrage of pointed, staccato personal questions:
"Why kind of Christian do you call yourself?"

"I attend church when I can."

"Cards on the table, Mr. Midge."

"Well, I think I have a religious nature. I sometimes find it hard to determine God's will."

"Inconvenient, you mean."

"That too, yes."

"What does it take to keep you from attending church?"

"I go when I can."

"A light rain?"

"I go when I can."

"This 'religious nature' business reminds me of Reo, your man of science. He'll try to tell you that god is out there in the trees an grass somewhere. Some kind of force. That's pretty thin stuff if you ask me. And Father Jackie is not much better. He says God is a perfect sphere. A ball, if you will."

"There are many different opinions on the subject."

"Did you suppose I didn't know that?"

Then, holding firm to her attitude of skepticism towards her son and all his friends, Mrs. Symes begins to ask about Reo:
"Is that woman Sybill still living with him?"

"I just don't know about that. He was by himself when I met him in Mexico."

"Good riddance then. He brought an old hussy named Sybil with him the last time. She had great big bushy eyebrows like a man. She and Reo were trying to open up a restaurant somewhere in California and they wanted me to put up the money for it. As if I had any money. Reo tells everybody I have money."

Melba said, "No, it was a singing school. Reo wanted to open a singing school."

"The singing school was an entirely different thing, Melba. This was a restaurant they were talking about. Little Bit of Austria. Sybil was going to sing some kind of foreign songs to the customers while they were eating. She said she was a night-club singer, and a dancer too. She planned to dance all around people's tables while they were trying to eat. I thought these night clubs had beautiful young girls to do that kind of thing but Sybil was almost as old as Reo."

"Older," said Melba. "Don't you remember her arms?"

"They left in the middle of the night. I remember that. Just picked up and left without a word."

"Sybil didn't know one end of a piano keyboard from the other."

"She wore shiny boots and backless dresses."

"But she didn't wear a girdle."

"She wore hardly anything when she was sunning herself back there in the yard."

"Her shameful parts were covered."

"That goes without saying, Melba. It wasn't necessary for you to say that and make us all think about it."
How can you not want to spend more time with these people?


  1. Sold. The Dog of the South, it is.

  2. I finished this book last month, and I highly recommend it. See my comments at my What I Like blog, and other reading list suggestions.