Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Dog of the South

I know it's not timely to review a book 35 years or so after it was written, but it's my blog and I'll do what I want to.

In fact, that "want to" means I'm not even going to write a review of Charles Portis's The Dog of the South. That is, I'm not going to tell you much of what happens in the book, or even what the book is about beyond a brief summary. Rather, I want to talk about what I think is one of this book's greatest strengths: the almost matchless comedic timing of its first chapter.

Now, if the name Charles Portis sounds familiar to you, it's likely because of his best-known book, True Grit (made famous by John Wayne's portrayal of Rooster Cogburn and brought to my attention, as to one abnormally born, through the Cohen Brothers' adaptation in 2010). It's in some ways a shame that Charles Portis wrote True Grit (which, in my estimation, is a masterpiece of American literature) if not simply because every other book he wrote is compared to it. I'm not immune to this tendency, for example, and while I liked The Dog of the South quite a bit, it's nowhere near as good as True Grit.

The Dog of the South opens with a great first line: "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." The action in the book follows Raymond Midge as he tracks Norma and Guy Dupree through Central America, meeting a wacky cast of characters (and providing a good deal of comedy with his own neuroses). I've only read The Dog of the South and True Grit, but Portis's strength as an author in both books is voice: he inhabits the fascinating (and, in these cases, hilarious) perspectives of his narrators without passing judgment and while allowing them to be unreliable in the best sense. We see events through their eyes, but we are aware that we're wearing some myopic spectacles. And while this casts doubt on some of the events, the disparity between what we see and what we perceive leaves ample room for comedy.

I was particularly impressed by the first chapter of The Dog of the South. Midge lays out his case against Norma and Dupree and, in typical jilted lover fashion, mopes around, wondering what he could have done differently. What's so impressive about this chapter is the gradual revelation of the writing. Midge will drop a fact in passing that forces you, immediately, to revise your appraisal of the facts to that point. You thought you were reading one story, and then, on a dime, it morphs into something else. Then he'll do it again, and again, and each small revelation is more hilarious than the last one. You realize that, while Norma should probably not have run off, there are always two sides to every conflict. The genius of the section is that Midge reveals his own quirks by showing rather than telling.

I work in nonfiction books, but I've worked on some fiction projects on the side. Most of my work with authors has been trying to move them from telling to showing. And the distinction is so hard to explain. Why is it boring for a narrator to describe what looks back at them from the mirror? Why is it boring for a character to list the disorders they've been diagnosed with? And why are there exceptions to either of these? What makes a description work in one context and not in another?

(I'll mention here that one of my biggest pet peeves when reading fiction is when an author won't leave anything to my imagination. It's possible for descriptions to bully, and I much prefer writing that allows me to have my own spin on the story. This is what Kurt Vonnegut describes in his essay that opens "Between Time and Timbuktu," the script of a made-for-TV movie that's, essentially, a postmodern medley of his books. He said that while there are many, many Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange--as many as there are people who have read it--there is only one Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The visual medium, says Vonnegut, is bullying, because it is subject to one person's vision, and that vision is what everyone sees. I think bad fiction is bullying in this sense--it's shallow enough that there's not much beyond the description to imagine.)

A much better command than "Show, don't tell!" is "Read this!" Who does description well? I think for this delicate trait of showing not telling, I might recommend the first chapter of The Dog of the South.

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