Portis, Charles (1999). The Dog of the South. New York: The Overlook Press (256 pp).
I enjoyed the utter originality of Portis’ sentences. How does anybody spin out such interesting details that do not have the stink of being “writerly?” I wish I knew. Random samples:
…an old school bus that had been painted white and rigged as a camper. The bus had been given a name, “The Dog of the South,” which was painted in black on one side, but not by a sign painter with a straight-edge and a steady hand. The big childish letters sprawled at different angles and dribbled at the bottom. (p. 47)
There was a bandstand in the central square, and some wrought-iron benches and some noisy flocking birds with long tail feathers. I took them to be members of the grackle family. There were elegant trees too, of the kind that architects like to sketch in front of their buildings. (p. 49)
“…Ski will be driving. He’s a pale man with no chin. Tattoos on his forearms. He wears a little straw hat with one of those things in the hatband. I can’t think of the word.”
“No, I can think of feather. This is harder to think of. A brass thing.”
“Who is this Ski?”
“Ted Brunowski. He’s an old friend of mine. They call him Ski. You know how they call people Ski and Chief and Tex in the army.”
“I’ve never been in the service.”
“Did you have asthma?”
“What are you taking for it?”
“I don’t have asthma.”
“Have you tried the Chihuahua dogs in your bedroom at night? They say it works. You might try it anyway.”
“I have never had asthma.”
“The slacker’s friend. That’s what they called it during the war…”
I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve heard of this fellow. I’ve handled news accounts about this man. This is the well –known ‘Vicar of Basin Street’”
“No, no,” she said. “This is another one. Father Jackie has a steel plate in his head. He plays the cornet. He’s an amateur magician. He claims he has no fear of the Judgment. I don’t know anything about the other fellow.” (p. 145)
I could go on, but I’d end up quoting 75% of the book. It’s unrelenting in its originality, intrinsic interest, and sense of humor. Looking back over those sections I quoted, I see that a prominent characteristic of the writing and of the dialog is the dissociative nature of the interactions. It’s like everyone is engaged in parallel play, no character really tracking anyone else. I like that as a dialog technique.
There’s also a Faulkneresque quality to this meandering, thinly plotted story about lowlifes in the south. As a rule, I don’t enjoy “southern gothic.” Descriptions of stupid people doing stupid things don’t interest me much. I like Faulkner for his outrageous language, and I like Portis, in this case, for his deadpan humor and for achieving such originality with ordinary language.
I also like a story with a plot, or, wanting that, with at least one compelling character, or as a last resort, at least some larger theme that illuminates a way of life or humanity in general. This novel is mostly of the road trip genre, and while the characters are original, they’re unmotivated, one-dimensional knockabouts. The plot is next to nonexistent. Themes? I don’t know. Stupid is as stupid does? There isn’t a takeaway. But for writers, and readers who enjoy good craftsmanship, Portis’ fine sentences and dialogs reward close reading.