Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Dog of the South - book review

“Dog of the South”, by Charles Portis – book review

My rating: 4/5

Ray Midge has constructed a sheltered existence for himself, structured and predictable, and though his attempts at getting a college degree have been stymied by his incapacity to follow a single field of study through, he’s not worried and regales himself with reading and drinking with his friend Guy Dupree. His world is punctured, though, when the same Dupree, fleeing from the law after proffering death threats on the president, heads down to Mexico with Ray’s credit card, car, and wife Norma. The book is an account of Midge’s attempt to get it all back by following Dupree into Belize and tracking him down.

On the outset, Ray’s motivations are fuzzy. After all, he’s going after Dupree for three different reasons, and one wonders which he cares the most for: the credit card, the car, or the wife? It becomes clearer, as the story unfolds, that Midge is keen on redeeming his honour, to somehow show himself worthy of some kind of respect in this great big world. In the process, he meets a slew of colourful characters who, each in their own way, are striving to cut out a piece of world for themselves as well, and his perspective gradually shifts as being outside his initial comfort zone loses its’ sting and he allows himself to be invaded by the commonality he shares with Dr. Symes, a junkie ex-doctor, and Webster, a young boy who works as a go-fer in the hotel where Ray is staying.

The story is told in a charming kind of rigid stubbornness, and Ray never loses an occasion to point out how people make a mockery of him. A common running gag in the book is how people continually call him by other people’s names, even toward the end when his own wife call’s him Guy, the name of the man who took her away from him.

I really enjoyed the earnest tone, the laugh-out-loud self-deprecating, wry humour, and the occasional twinges of real emotion that occur in times when Ray is just too tired or battered to protect himself from the events unfolding around him. Also, when he does finally find his wife, the meeting is told in a way that is touchingly sincere and believable, and reading it I couldn’t help but admire the way a man will go after a woman who left him, and then try to get her back, and swallow his pride in the process and not look to punish her but merely try to reconstruct the fragile edifice of the relationship they once shared together.

Passages I much liked:

‘Whenever that kind of thing came up, he would always say – boast, the way those people do – that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.’
‘I ordered roast beef and I told the waitress I wanted plenty of gristle and would like for the meat to be gray with an iridescent rainbow sheen.’
‘The desert road was straight and the guidebook said it was boring but I didn’t find it so. I was interested in everything, the gray-green bushes, the cactus, a low brown hill, a spider crossing the road.’
‘The doctor had deposited bits of gray snot on every page and these boogers were dried and crystallized.’
‘Ruth didn’t like the Americans but he, Webster, rather liked them, even if they did keep him hopping with their endless demands for ice and light bulbs and towels and flyswatters. Even the wretched hippies expected service. It was in their blood.’
‘Webster Spooner was in front of the hotel dancing around the tomato plant and jabbing the air with his tiny fists. He too had attended the matinee showing of the Muhammed Ali fight.
“I’m one bad-ass nigger,” he said to me.
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m one bad-ass nigger.”
“No, you’re not.”’
‘She made a cheery progress from bed to bed, in the confident manner of a draftdodger athlete signing autographs for mutilated soldiers.’

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