Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Charles Portis's THE DOG OF THE SOUTH for Summer Reading

The Baltimore Sun's Kevin Cowherd offers a money-back guarantee for readers of The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis:

"If you're looking for a great summer read and have vowed to take a break from the usual trash that ends up on your nightstand, have I got a book for you. It's a wonderful comic novel by the great Charles Portis called The Dog of the South, first published in 1979.

Oh, I know what you're thinking.You're thinking: Hey, Mr. Helpful, how about recommending a book we've actually heard of, or something that's been published in this century? Sure, go ahead, make your jokes. But this is a terrific book. I feel so strongly about it that I will personally refund the purchase price of the book, plus an additional 20 percent for your troubles, if you buy it and don't like it. (Note to editor: Run some kind of legal disclaimer here that gets me out of that. Thanks.)

The Dog of the South is about a man named Ray Midge who sets out to track his wife, Norma, who has run off with her first husband, a sleazeball named Guy Dupree. To make matters worse, Norma and Guy have also taken Ray's credit cards and his car, not to mention his good raincoat and shotgun. So Ray waits for the credit card receipts to come in and sets off on the trail of the two lovebirds, tracking them from Arkansas to Mexico to Belize. Along the way, he meets all sorts of characters, including Dr. Reo Symes, a cranky physician who lives in a school bus called "The Dog of the South" and who's obsessed with the mysterious John Selmer Dix, a deceased writer of inspirational books for salesmen.

OK, that might sound a little too off-the-wall for your tastes. But I'm telling you, this novel will draw you in with its themes of betrayal and revenge, its deadpan dialogue and its lineup of picaresque rogues looking for adventure in a world they don't quite understand. If you take this book to the beach and start reading it, you won't even take a break to go in the water. You'll just keep reading and reading, and finally you'll look up and it'll be dusk. The beach will be almost empty, except for a few dogs and maybe a guy surf-fishing and a couple of old guys in gym shorts and knee-high socks running those stupid metal detectors over the sand. Then you'll go home and get something to eat and start reading again. And you won't be able to stop reading until you pass out from exhaustion.

Portis, by the way, was a Marine infantryman in the Korean War and later a reporter for a number of newspapers, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the New York Herald Tribune and the Arkansas Gazette.Then he left that low-brow racket and went legit, writing fiction full time, and we're all the better for it. His best-known novel is True Grit, which came out in 1968. The book is a taut tale of a 14-year-old girl who recruits an aging, drunken U.S. marshal named Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father's killer. The book was made into a movie starring John Wayne, who won an Academy Award for best actor. And if you think Wayne was a good actor in that film, you must have a drinking problem, too. But that's how good the story was and how good Portis was, too. Portis made a few bucks off True Grit, of course. But for my money, The Dog of the South is his best work, and they should have made a movie out of it, too.

Anyway, you'll love this book. Go buy it today. Remember my money-back guarantee."

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