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.”).

Continue reading “Charles Portis and Chekov’s Gun”

…a grim face made of some hard kind of wood…

Matters now began to move briskly. Waiter C, who rashly clutched the sleeve of Ronnie’s coat, reeled back with a hand pressed to his right eye. Waiter D, a married man, contented himself with standing on the outskirts and talking Italian. But Waiter E, made of sterner stuff, hit Ronnie rather hard with a dish containing omelette aux champignons, and it was as the latter reeled beneath this buffet that there suddenly appeared in the forefront of the battle a figure wearing a gay uniform and almost completely concealed behind a vast moustache, waxed at the ends. It was the commissionaire from the street-door; and anybody who has ever been bounced from a restaurant knows that comissionaires are heavy metal.

This one, whose name was McTeague, and who had spent many lively years in the army before retiring to take up his present duties, had a grim face made of some hard kind of wood and the muscles of a village blacksmith. A man of action rather than words, he clove his way through the press in silence. Only when he reached the centre of the maelstrom did he speak. This was when Ronnie, leaping upon a chair the better to perform the operation, hit him on the nose. On receipt of this blow, he uttered the brief monosyllable ‘Ho!’ and then, without more delay, scooped Ronnie into an embrace of steel and bore him towards the door, through which was now moving a long, large, leisurely policeman.

Fight scene, P.G. Wodehouse style, (from Summer Lightning).

Give me the same chance you would an olive

I merely say ‘Think it over.’ It is nothing to cause you mental distress. Other men love you. Freddie Threepwood loves you. Just add me to that list. That is all I ask. Muse on me from time to time. Reflect that I may be an acquired taste. You probably did not like olives the first time you tasted them. Now you probably do. Give me the same chance you would an olive.

Psmith, proposing, in P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith

LOL, with comps. of A. Mulliner

To seize this child by the hand and drag him to the nearest confectioner and baker was with Archibald Mulliner the work of a moment. He pulled out his note-case and was soon in possession of a fine quartern loaf. He thrust it into the child’s hands.

“Bread,” he said, cordially.

The child recoiled. The look of pain on his face had deepened.

“It’s all right,” Archibald assured him. “Nothing to pay. This is on me. A free gift. One loaf, with comps. of A. Mulliner.”

Gently patting the stripling’s head he turned away, modestly anxious to be spared any tearful gratitude, and he had hardly gone a couple of steps when something solid struck a violent blow on the nape of the neck. For an instant, he thought of thunderbolts, falling roofs, and explosions which kill ten. Then, looking down, he perceived the quartern loaf rolling away along the gutter.

The fact was, the child had been a little vexed. At first, when Archibald had started steering him towards the shop, he had supposed my nephew unbalanced. Then, observing that among the objects for sale at the emporium were chocolate bars, jujubes, and all-day suckers, he had brightened a little. Still dubious as to his companion’s sanity, he had told himself that an all-day sucker tastes just as good, even if it proceeds from a dotty donor. And then, just as hope had begun to rise high, this man had fobbed him off with a loaf of bread.

Little wonder that he had chafed. His mood was bitter. And when moods are bitter in Bottleton East direct action follows automatically.

Well, Archibald did what he could. Stooping and picking up the loaf, he darted after the child with bared teeth and flaming eyes. It was his intention to overtake him and fill him up with bread, regardless of his struggles and protests. The thing seemed to him a straight issue. The child needed bread, and he was jolly well going to get it – even if it meant holding him down with one hand and shoving the stuff down his throat with the other. In all the history of social work in London’s East End there can seldom have been an instance of one of the philanthropic rich being more firmly bent on doing good and giving of his abundance.

His efforts, however, were fruitless.

“Archibald and the Masses” in Young Men in Spats

A snag

I looked at Uncle Percy, confidently expecting the salvo of applause, and was amazed to find him shaking the bean once more.

“It wouldn’t work,” he said.

“Why on earth not? It’s a pip.”

He kept on oscillating the lozenge.

“No Bertie, the scheme is not practical. Your aunt, my dear boy, is a suspicious woman. She probes beneath the surface and asks questions. And the first one she would ask on this occasion would be, Why, merely in order to discuss wedding arrangements with my ward’s future husband did I dress up as Sindbad the Sailor? You can see for your self how awkward that question would be, and how difficult to answer.”

The point was well taken.

P.G. Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning

Wooster and Jeeves

I had had a sort of vague idea, don’t you know, that if I stuck close to Motty and went about the place with him, I might act as a bit of a damper on the gaiety. What I mean is, I thought that if, when he was being the life and soul of the party, he were to catch my reproving eye he might ease up a trifle on the revelry. So the next night I took him along to supper with me. It was the last time. I’m a quiet, peaceful sort of chappie who has lived all his life in London, and I can’t stand the pace these swift sportsmen from the rural districts set. What I mean to say is, I’m all for rational enjoyment and so forth, but I think a chappie makes himself conspicuous when he throws soft-boiled eggs at the electric fan. And decent mirth and all that sort of thing are all right, but I do bar dancing on tables and having to dash all over the place dodging waiters, managers, and chuckers-out, just when you want to sit still and digest.

P.G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest” – I am finding the Wooster and Jeeves stories hilarious (can’t recommend the TV series though – only made it through a couple of episodes – it doesn’t have the necessary linguistic “fizz” as Bertie might say).