I can only describe The Dog of the South as a comic masterpiece, and Portis is without any shadow of a doubt in my mind a greatly underrated American novelist. I’ve heard him compared to Cormac McCarthy, and I can see the line of thought taken here: the characters both writers create often inhabit a similar kind of universe, down at heel and desperate; both authors’ prose has a poetic elegance about it. However, (it seems to me) the difference is that Portis really likes his characters, he’s like a watchful father who wants to see his children do well, whereas McCarthy, great writer though he unquestionably is, can be a bit like the God of the Old Testament when it comes to his literary offspring; you know - vengeance, punishment, destruction.
I laughed out loud (unusual for me) so many times as I lay in bed reading this book. As with all the funniest writing, the people of the story are never in on the joke and remain completely dumbfounded throughout. Everyone in this story is a little bit lost and down on their luck, but you somehow find yourself rooting for all of them, hoping they’ll somehow just find a way to get through. Portis delights the reader by offering us a deadpan narration through the slightly Quixotic, good-natured voice of the book’s central character Ray Midge. Ray, a bit goofy by his own observation, is on something of a heroic quest to right a wrong - well, rather a lot of wrongs, perpetrated against him by the unconscionable, yet pretty hapless, Guy Dupree. I’m not really giving very much away here - this is the novel’s opening sentence: 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.
Portis, an author who has only written about five novels in as many decades, could hardly be considered prolific. However, I’ve chosen to view this positively - this means I still have three Portis novels yet to read, and both True Grit and The Dog of the South are most certainly worthy of return visits someday! So - hurrah!
Hope you get a chance to read this book and that you enjoy it as thoroughly as I did!