I was guided to Charles Portis by a book called Deep South by Paul Theroux, an account of his travels around the southern U.S. I knew about True Grit, of course, but never bothered to learn the author of the book, since it was nothing but another John Wayne movie, after all. That’s how prejudice can impoverish you.
Portis is from Arkansas, and Theroux attempted to seek him out, but was unsuccessful. I mention that incident because a reclusive writer is central to the action of The Dog of The South, the name of a broken down bus possessed by one of the benighted characters of this quirky and insightful tale. Beneath the main plot, which is poor Ray Midge’s search for his runaway wife, Norma, and her paramour, his former best friend, Guy Dupree, is recurrent speculation about the works of a reclusive author. The temptation is to say that this author doesn’t exist at all, that he’s a fabrication of the imaginations of these characters, whose imaginations fabricate so much that much of the novel teeters on the brink of magical realism. Or at least cerebral hallucinations of several varieties. Is this lost writer the elusive Portis, following his characters around like Alfred Hitchcock with his cameo appearances in all those mysteries? That’s a mystery.
What isn’t a mystery is that this sad and hilarious road trip narrated by the alternately self-deprecating and ego-inflated Midge is a completely original window into the human condition. What we pursue, how far we pursue it, and the gargantuan efforts we make along the way, all to end up where we started with next to nothing to show for our efforts–these go to make a moving image of our futile existence. Yet, turn the image over, and it is rich in color, texture, and fascination. Portis encompasses all that and more and makes us laugh along the way.