Who laughs out loud when alone? Children and the insane, I suppose. There’s a social component to laughter, almost as though it were meant to be shared. Only occasionally does a book or movie provoke laughter in solitude, but I’m reading a novel that caused me to pull a muscle in my side late the other night, when my wife and kids had been asleep for hours: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.
After much proselytizing from James Marcus and Ron Rosenbaum, I started Portis’ 1979 novel, and the experience reminds me of watching the Marx Brothers at their best – say, Duck Soup – when the jokes fly so relentlessly you miss some because you’re too busy laughing at the last one. Early in the novel, Ray Midge, in search of his runaway wife Norma and her ex-husband Guy Dupree, hooks up with a version of Melville’s Confidence Man, the seedy, enigmatic Dr. Reo Symes:
“I learned that he had been dwelling in the shadows for several years. He had sold hi-lo shag carpet remnants and velvet paintings from the back of a truck in California. He had sold wide shoes by mail, shoe that must have been almost round, at widths up to EEEEEE. He had sold gladiola bulbs and vitamins for men and fat-melting pills and all-purpose hooks and hail-damaged pears. He had picked up small fees counseling veterans on how to fake chest pains so as to gain immediate admission to V.A. hospitals and a free week in bed. He had sold ranchettes in Colorado and unregistered securities in Arkansas.”
Why is this funny? Lists, by nature, lend themselves to comedy, as does any human effort to be comprehensive. Partly, it’s the specificity of the list – not pears, but “hail-damaged pears.” More importantly, it’s Portis’ pitch-perfect control of Midge’s voice – flat, deadpan, finicky. Unyielding earnestness in the face of a juggernaut of absurdity is funny. There’s no underlining, no italics, just a methodical laundry list, as cool and dry as the prose in a phone book. Here’s Dr. Symes describing Ski, who may or may not be trailing them across Mexico:
“He’s a real-estate smarty. He makes money while he’s sleeping. He used to be a policeman. He says he made more unassisted arrests than any other officer in the colorful history of Harris County. I can’t vouch for that but I know he made plenty. I’ve known him for years. I used to play poker with him at the Rice Hotel. I gave distemper shots to his puppies. I removed a benign wart from his shoulder that was as big as a Stuart pecan. It looked like a little man’s head, or a baby’s head, like it might talk, or cry. I never charged him a dime. Ski has forgotten all that.”
Every sentence is plain: subject-verb-object, sparing with adjectives, no verbal pyrotechnics, just common American English. Prose like a police report, like Buster Keaton’s face. And like Keaton, hilarious. Portis is sui generis, at least in this novel. Once in a while he reminds me of Thomas Berger or Stanley Elkin, but their prose is more cranked up. Sometimes, oddly, I hear an echo of Tom Waits – the love of cliché and demotic American idiom. If you asked me what the book is “about,” what its themes are, I would be flummoxed.