A Stupid Opinion About The Dog of the South

19 Mar

The protagonist of Charles Portis’s novel The Dog of the South, Ray Midge, is so perfectly socially inept that I’m surprised that HBO hasn’t optioned the book to be a week-long mini-series. He stumbles through every situation he comes across on his journey from Arkansas to South America while pursuing his wife who has run away with her first husband Ray’s credit cards and his Ford Torino. Like the HBO shows with a similar lack of social mores (Curb, Hello, Ladies, Girls), every interaction Ray has should have been handled better by a person with even more substandard social skills.   He stumbles through every situation whether that be drunkenly over-staying his welcome at a bar and being ostracized to the corner, or taking a playful road interaction as a malicious annoyance, or when he gave a local boy who has helped him a giant pickle jar as a gift. Ray Midge is a hilarious, daft man whose wife had every justification in leaving him. The great thing about this book, however, is that Portis is so gifted as a writer that he’s able to make this character’s social unawareness come across even though Ray Midge is the narrator of the story. Every poor choice Midge makes he allows himself an explanation, and it’s still painfully obvious that this character is completely incompetent when it comes to interacting with people occupying the world around him. 


Ray Midge reminds me of another literary character I had the pleasure of discovering this year; Al Roosten. He’s the title character from a George Saunders short story in an excellent collection; Tenth of December. Both characters regularly suffer from being called the wrong name, they both mentally justify their behavior in nearly every interaction. Both characters show just how mentally taxing it can be to be completely unaware. While Al Roosten passively aggressively challenges Larry Donfrey’s alpha male status in a lunchtime auction of Local Celebrities, he’s really just trying to mentally combat the years of repressed homosexual feelings. Midge’s journey is much different. He so occupied with projecting this idea of masculinity he received from his father he claims that he’s more concerned with his missing car than his missing wife. Throughout the story he’s given chance after chance to understand his motives, but he turns away every time in favor of his masculine idea of what it means to be a man.

Along the trip he meets the owner of the Dog of the South, an old school bus converted to transnational recreational vehicle, and Dr. Reo Symes, a fraudulent doctor with a revoked license and a hundred and one scams and schemes to get rich. Instead of being obsessed with the Civil War historian as Ray Midge is, Symes is more obsessed with an elusive, possibly deceased, author by the name of John Selmer Dix. Dix represents the essence of masculinity and success to Symes, but he only has one book by the author. He figures all of the answers are in this book. And though nobody has seen Dix, Symes follows his teaching with a religious devotion. Though Dr. Symes is much more self-aware than Ray, he is still what Ray will become if he continues along the path of painfully unaware faux-manhood.

The book tells of Migde’s quest for his car, his wife and his dignity. The socially unaware need redemption too, it just so happens that their redemption is about a thousand times more hilarious than the traditional of people who understand the basic principles of human interaction.

-C. Charles


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