The Dog of the South

The Dog of the South is the third of five novels written by Charles Portis, Arkansas’s most famous author of fiction. Like each of the other four, it chronicles the odyssey of a young Southerner on some sort of mission—to collect a debt, settle some grievance, solve a mystery, or discover the divine secrets of an ancient order. Portis’s narratives—his most celebrated was True Grit, which was twice made into a movie—are commonly grouped in a category of fiction called the picaresque novel, about oddball characters searching for some meaning for their lives. Portis himself scoffed at such categorizations of his work.

Published in 1979, The Dog of the South is the fictional Ray Midge’s account of his journey at the age of twenty-six from Little Rock (Pulaski County) deep into Central America to British Honduras (Belize), to get back his Ford Torino, his American Express and Texaco credit cards, his shotgun, his good raincoat, his tape recording of Professor Buddy Casey’s lecture at Ole Miss on the Siege of Vicksburg, and his wife Norma, all of which he says were stolen from him by Guy Dupree, Midge’s unhinged colleague on the copy desk of a Little Rock newspaper. (Portis had once been a writer at the Arkansas Gazette.) Midge had helped Dupree make bond—Dupree had made many goofy threats to kill the president of the United States and signed them with such aliases as “Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy” and “Hoecake Scarfer”—but then the rascal stole Midge’s belongings and fled the country to escape trial and jail, with Norma in tow. Norma had first been married to Dupree before taking up with Midge and then leaving him to return to Dupree.

Like his other books, with the exception perhaps of True Grit, the hemispheric plot of The Dog of the South—the quest to recover his stolen belongings—is almost immaterial. It is merely the scaffold for perpetually amusing dialogue, between Midge and his consorts and antagonists or in his presence, and also to introduce a collection of characters that seem to be fabulists, schemers, or conspiracists of some order but who mostly embody the variety of humanity. That includes the most entertaining character in the book, Reo Symes, a quack doctor and fabulist who, like Dupree, is on the lam from the law in the United States for his money-making medical schemes. Symes, who had become the owner of a broken-down old bus emblazoned with the words “Dog of the South,” accompanies Midge through the rugged tropics to a remote village in Belize where Midge has figured out that Dupree has gone with Norma and his Ford.

Like other Portis protagonists, such as Norwood Pratt in Norwood, Ray Midge is some version of the author. Midge is an incessant reader (he brags to Symes that he owns “sixty lineal feet of books”). He is an inveterate historian, particularly of battles, which obliges him to bore everyone about strange intricacies of Civil War battles or some old military escapade in the area. Portis was once an auto mechanic, so Norwood and Ray Midge constantly explain troubles with the manifold or some other obscure part in the rattletraps that take them and their confederates on their pilgrimages to New York and Belize and back. Like Norwood, Midge always wants to do what is right but finds himself sympathetically helping miscreants like Doc Symes evade the law. Midge constantly reflects upon his own weaknesses, like with his wife: “I should have paid more attention to Norma. I should have talked to her and listened to her, but I didn’t do it. A timely word here and there might have worked wonders.” In the final pages, he finds Norma dying from disease and distress in a hurricane, and he brings her back to Little Rock; on the last page, she leaves him for good.

But it is the dialogue, which consumes most of the book, that gives The Dog of the South its classical richness. Novelist Donna Tartt, a lifelong Portis admirer, in an article in the New York Times after Portis’s death in 2020, described the vernacular of the rural South that she found so perfectly captured in The Dog of the South and the other four novels: “Portis caught better than any writer then alive the complex and highly inflected regional vernacular I heard spoken as a child—mannered and quaint, old-fashioned and highly constructed but also blunt, roughshod, lawless, inflected by Shakespeare and Tennyson and King James but also by agricultural gazetteers and frilly old Christian pamphlets, by archaic dictionaries of phrase and fable, by the voices of mule drivers and lady newspaper poets and hanging judges and hellfire preachers.”

The musings of Midge, Symes, and others also capture the common resort, in the South and perhaps farther, to conspiratorial theories to explain all the travails of life from economic injustices and elections to afternoon traffic problems.

For additional information:
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of The Dog of the South. Books of the Times, June 22, 1979, p. C27.

Lyster, Rosa. “On the Alert for Omens: Rereading Charles Portis.” Paris Review, December 1, 2021. Online at https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2021/12/01/on-the-alert-for-omens-reading-charles-portis/ (accessed December 14, 2021).

Reed, Roy. “Charles Portis, Elusive Author of ‘True Grit,’ Dies at 86.” New York Times, February 17, 2020. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/17/obituaries/charles-portis-dead.html (accessed December 15, 2021).

———. “Interview with Charles Portis, Little Rock, Arkansas, 31 May 2001.” Arkansas Gazette Project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Online at https://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?thisProject=2 (accessed February 17, 2020).

Tartt, Donna. “Donna Tartt on the Singular Voice, and Pungent Humor, of Charles Portis.” New York Times, June 9, 2020. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/09/books/charles-portis-true-grit-dog-of-the-south-gringos-masters-of-atlantis (accessed December 15, 2021).

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 01/08/2022