Charles Portis and Chekov’s Gun

Charles Portis’ Dog of the South has a sort of Arkansan Wodehouse vibe to it (this is not a slam, I think Wodehouse is a comic genius). While I like comic novels (I will fight for comic Dickens as the best Dickens) I am not usually a “laugh out loud” sort of reader, more of an amused half-smirk sort of reader. But, when Dr. Reo Symes, defending the unjustly overlooked salesman/writer of With Wings as Eagles (one John Selmer Dix, MA) states that “Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse” I found myself, yes, laughing out loud (later: “He said that all other writing, compared to Dix’s work, was just ‘foul grunting'”). But, while I appreciated Dog of the South, I liked it a little less than Gringos, which I also read earlier this year (I read True Grit a few years ago, and loved it). There are a lot of common threads between Dog of the South and Gringos – a distinctive voice (Portis’ superpower), a south-of-the-border setting, lots of talk about proper maintenance of one’s vehicle, and wandering, slightly off-kilter, southern, male narrators – so I wanted to think through why I liked one more than the other.

It may seem strange to compare Wodehouse’s Edwardian-dreamland country house comedies with a story of a man chasing after his stolen car and unfaithful wife through Central America in the early 1970s, but the comparison is not too far fetched. Ray Midge, hapless protagonist trapped in a state of arrested development (“I had accumulated enough hours over the years for at least two bachelors’ degrees but I had never actually taken one”) is the southern American cousin to Bertie Wooster, the perpetually youthful narrator of Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves stories (although Ray’s familial wealth is received in the form of an American Express card and Ford Torino from his father). Just as in Wodehouse, Dog of the South is filled with verbal fireworks and most of the action is to be found in the conversation between characters. The difference is that the dialogues take place in a 1963 Buick Special on a dirt road in Belize rather than in the drawing room of a country house and are punctuated by exchanges regarding the development plans for a private island in Louisiana (“How about a theme park? Jefferson Davis Land … Every afternoon at three Lee would take off his gray coat and wrestle an alligator in a mud hole”) rather than discussions of who is marrying whom among Bertie’s numerous upper-class friends and relations. There’s even a stand-in for Wodehouse’s abundance of aunts, in the form of two elderly missionaries, Nell Symes and Melba, who run the Unity Tabernacle mission in Belize (“This remarkable lady had psychic gifts and she had not slept for three years, or so they told me. She sat up in a chair every night in the dark drinking coffee.”).

The comparison to Wodehouse helps me narrow down why I liked Dog of the South less than Gringos and it has to do with Chekov’s gun (the most common version: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there”), which in Portis ends up being literal guns. In Gringos, Jimmy Burns ends up using the shotgun he keeps behind the backseat of his pickup (mentioned in the first pages of the book) but in Dog of the South Ray’s carefully hidden Colt Cobra is fished out of a styrofoam ice chest by an inquisitive border guard halfway through the book and is never seen again. That difference in narrative movement – expectations fulfilled vs. expectations frustrated gets to part of the reason why I found Gringos more satisfying.

This moment of narrative tension dissipated with a Whoopie cushion wheeze is part of the point of Dog of the South. The frustrated expectations are not accidental and the trick with the gun is repeated throughout the book: the confrontation between Ray and his nemesis Guy Dupree (who fails to properly maintain his vehicles, and has run off with Ray’s wife Norma … who was also Guy’s ex-wife … again, a sort of translation of the kind of complicated relationships that Wodehouse delights in setting up) is an anticlimactic stand-off (sample dialogue: “Well Dupree, I see you have some little boots on the dog.”). Ray later breaks into Guy’s house (with two children in tow) and finds it empty. Children arrive at the Unity Tabernacle expecting a showing of Tarzan and get the movie Swamp Fire instead (the specific movie isn’t spelled out by Portis – I did some Googling) – which includes two actors who previously played Tarzan, but no “Tarzan action with vines and big cats and crocodiles.” The book’s title is the name of Reo Symes’ bus, which is mentioned once, abandoned in Mexico, and is never mentioned again. Ray finds his stolen Ford Torino, but it’s been scrapped (the list could go on). And, as the reader comes to expect following all that has gone on before, despite all his voyaging, the book ends where it started, with Ray back in Louisiana, alone, Norma having left him again (although this time he will not pursue her).

Wodehouse provides a helpful contrast because his comedies, while they are driven by voice and dialogue, always include a tightly wound plot. Part of the charm of Wodehouse is seeing how the ingredients that are sprinkled in at the beginning (a cow creamer, a fascist, newts, a policeman’s helmet, etc.) will be used to bake the narrative cake. It is also why he risks descending into self-parody at times with some of the later work, as he only writes variations on one sort of story – improvisations on a single recipe (an issue he himself recognized). But, when it works, it works, and the interlocking cogs of Wodehouse’s plots pull the reader along, reliably delivering payoffs along the way. In his letters, Wodehouse mentions repeatedly the importance of his plots, and the energy he put into trying to make the clockwork run.

Portis very purposefully does the opposite in Dog of the South. He takes the clock and smashes it to pieces, and the joke is that we keep trying to read the time from the scattered fragments. Often the things and people introduced early in the story end up being mostly irrelevant and serve no overarching narrative purpose – a world designed by Nell Symes’ Calvinist God this most definitely is not. There’s a darker metaphysical background to the story than a Wodehouse romp, emphasizing the absurd and the random – just to make sure we don’t miss this, the climax of the book is a hurricane, a force entirely indifferent to the human stories we’ve been following. Gringos is much looser than a Wodehouse story, but it at least carries some narrative momentum – as I say, the shotgun ends up being used, and there is at least a partial wrapping up of narrative threads (we solve a mystery, Jimmy is in a different place at the end of the story vs. the beginning, the lost child rejoins her family etc.).

This isn’t necessarily to say that one book is better than the other. They’re doing different things – I just liked one more than the other. I get the joke of Dog of the South, but I like having at least one narrative thread to pull me through a novel. That says something about me as a reader, I know, but I do think that Dog of the South would have been improved if at least one of the threads that were started in the first pages could have been been resolved in a more traditional way. In some ways, Norma’s journey is the one that seems to have the most potential for this sort of resolution, but we remain relatively removed from her story, trapped as we are in Ray’s perception (he may be surprised that Norma leaves him a second time, but the reader is not). I enjoyed my time on the road with Ray and Reo and the crew, but would have enjoyed it more if someone had eventually arrived somewhere new.

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