The Perfect Comic Novel

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No, it’s not “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” only because of Twain’s profound, embedded social commentary on race, which is actually quite serious. The title goes to “The Dog of the South,” Charles Portis’s romp through “old” Mexico with Raymond Midge, a 26-year-old, broken down copy editor from Little Rock.

Portis is 82 now. He wrote his first novel, “Norwood,” in 1961 and four more over the next 30 years. Here’s some good background from a WSJ profile. Portis Profile

His most famous is “True Grit.”

It was made into a star vehicle for John Wayne in 1969 and then remade by the Coen brothers in 2010. “True Grit” was hilarious, but when the main characters are a cranky, alcoholic sheriff named Rooster and a Bible-quoting 14-year-old girl, the humor tends to write itself.

Early in his career, Portis ran the London Bureau of the old New York Herald Tribune, so he knows how to write a “lede.” Here’s the opening sentence from “Dog” – “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.” That is pretty much the scope of the plot. But by the time Raymond finds Norma and Dupree down in Mexico, we are completely seduced by the oddball cast of Raymond, Dr. Reo Symes, Jack Wilkie, Dupree and the other characters that spring whole cloth out of the Portis universe.

Portis doesn’t do slapstick. “Dog” does make you laugh out loud at times, but mostly the humor is in language, tone and attitude. Portis sounds like Twain, and also like John Kennedy Toole, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Berger (whose “Little Big Man” gets my vote as runner-up for The Perfect Comic Novel).

little big man

“Dog” propels itself with a fluid style built on finely described details, forward motion and humor that is seamlessly integrated into the story. Here’s what I mean: “I gave up the search and pressed on south atop a desolate plateau. It was cool up there and the landscape was not like the friendly earth I knew. This was the cool dry space that we hear so much about, the place where we are supposed to store things. The car ran well and I glowed in the joy of solitary flight. It was almost a blessed state. Was I now a ramblin’ man, like in the country songs? Sorry, lady, but I got to be ramblin’ on!

Allman Brothers, “Ramblin’ Man”

Perfection is built on hard work and discipline, but in the moment it always comes from a place that is effortless. “The Dog of the South” comes from that place – it rises from the pages like a breath or a smile, effortlessly. Read it.

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