On the Alert for Omens: Rereading Charles Portis



Annotated pages from the author’s copy of The Dog of the South

About a month ago, this man dropped an orange peel on me, deliberately, from the third-floor window of a pink apartment building on Bohdana Khmelnytsky Street in Kyiv, Ukraine. If you would like to picture the scene, you should imagine a man with the same shape of head and beard as Karl Marx, dressed in a high-necked white garment that sits at the intersection of “mystic” and “physician,” eating an orange and staring directly into the tired eyes of a woman who is wearing an ankle-length black coat that makes her feel like a corrupt but dignified old banker and big shiny black shoes that make her feel like a powerful car. I was on my way to the A. V. Fomin Botanical Garden a few streets away, and it was early enough in the morning that I had nothing in my head except the thought of how much I loved my shoes. I’d been gazing down at them as I walked, gloating over them in a way that was Rumpelstiltskinesque, when I realized someone was staring at me, hard, so I looked up and there was this man, in the pink building across the street, eating his orange with glazed conviction and giving off an aura of Rasputin.

We stood there for about thirty seconds, him at his window and me on my sidewalk, and then the business of making sustained eye contact with some kind of sinister holy man got to be too much for me, and I crossed the street so that I was right under his window, at an angle that made looking at each other impossible. This is when he dropped the orange peel. He timed it exactly, so that it bounced off my shoulder and onto my shoe. It was a good peel, as well, the practiced, unbroken spiral of someone who has spent a lot of time standing at windows issuing baffling communiqués through the medium of fruit. I looked at it for a bit, trying to figure out how to take the whole thing: Benediction or curse? Important or not important? I thought of picking up the peel and keeping it as a memento of whatever had just taken place, but my handbag already had too much bullshit in it, too many little rocks and ticket stubs, so instead I went to the café at the entrance to the gardens and wrote down what had happened, sitting at one of the wrought iron tables and whispering my shoes around in the drifts of leaves at my feet. “Clerical vibe to the white garment,” I wrote. “Seems like it would have a lot of buckles and straps going all up and down the inside of it.”

When you travel, these surplus encounters of unknown or dubious import occur all the time, and there is value in writing them down. They might become important later, or you may need to think about them when your life starts taking on an unrecognizable quality and you must pause in order to locate yourself within it. You believe you will remember exactly how it felt to be looking intently at a citrus peel while shifting from foot to foot on a navy blue morning so cold your hands are stiff little paddles in their pockets, and feeling so sad about something unrelated to oranges that the back of your neck actually physically hurts, this crawling ache that spreads all the way to your ears, but stuff like this vanishes unless you keep it somewhere. I’ve always known that the throwaway details are the ones you should hold on to, but I was never very good at doing that until I read Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South.

My friend Dan recommended the book to me, on the grounds that it would make me laugh more than anything I had ever read. This was an outrageous claim, and too much pressure to put on a novel about a man, Ray Midge, who makes his way from Arkansas to Honduras in an effort to track down his restless wife, Norma, after she has run off with her irritable first husband, Dupree—but Dan was right. I’d never read anything by Charles Portis before, and yet the shock of recognition I felt from the first page onward was strong enough to create the impression that I’d had his novels with me always, heard them read aloud as a baby, gone to sleep in pajamas printed with the words “Strength of Materials!” and on sheets that read over and over in tiny lettering: “The church arrest had grown out of a squabble with some choir members who had pinched him and bitten him and goosed him. They were trying to force him out of the choir, he said, because they claimed he sang at an odd tempo and threw them off the beat. One Sunday he turned on them and whipped at them with a short piece of grass rope. Some of the women cried.”

Trying to explain why this passage makes me laugh is like trying to explain why I like rivers more than oceans, or daisies more than roses, or extremely hard towels (like the ones in Portis’s Gringos: “Rough-dried in the sun. Very stiff and invigorating after a bath”) more than horrible, soft, fluffy ones. It is just my preference, something to do with my childhood. It’s the rhythm, maybe, or how evident it is that Portis is making himself laugh as he draws up the scene of this battle between Ray Midge’s travel companion, Dr. Reo Symes, and the choir members who are so destabilized by Symes’s presence that they are reduced to biting him, occasioning the retaliation involving the bit of grass rope. The phrase “turned on them and whipped at them.” The sentence “Some of the women cried.” I don’t know.

Portis’s imagination is truly wild—both unhampered and unpredictable—and reading him for the first time required a significant adjustment to all my previously gathered knowledge of what a person can or should put in a novel if they want it to be good. He is unbeatable at the non sequitur, so that every paragraph contains the possibility of crazed escalation. A conversation Ray has about the Bible with Reo Symes’s mother’s weird friend, Melba, starts with her asking him about a particular bit of Scripture and ends with her saying she will thank him to remember that “all the little animals of your youth are long dead.” At one point, Ray is treated “to some Pepsi-Colas” by another of his temporary traveling companions, a small boy called Webster Spooner, and expresses surprise because “most children are close with their money.” Portis favors the insertion of the unexpectedly specific question: “Can she make her own little skirts and jumpers?” “What about raisins? Does she like raisins?” “What kind of birds are they? … Can they talk? … Do they lay their tiny eggs in the road?” “Do you claim to know the meaning of every word in the Greek language?” The effect of these is to reveal that other people’s inner lives are remarkable, that each of us is walking around, at least 20 percent of the time, wanting the answers to questions no one else would have thought up if they lived to be as old as the hills. It’s hilarious to be in the company of a writer who thinks like this, who has his protagonist make sweeping, unkind observations about the financial habits of children or participate in arguments about who invented the clamp: “The principle of the clamp was probably known to the Sumerians. You can’t go around saying this fellow from Louisiana invented the clamp.”

But it’s not only that The Dog of the South is funny. I have been traveling constantly since June of this year, and it’s the only book I brought with me from home. Like almost every other decision I have made over the past few months, this one did not involve a lot of prior consideration—the novel was just there on top of a pile that happened to be near my open suitcase, and I needed something new to read, so I packed it. I had no idea what it would do to the way I write, which is to say, to the way I think about the world. Early on in the novel, when Ray is still in America, a man gives him a card that bears an impenetrable message. It says “Kwitcherbellyachin” on the front and “adios AMIGO and watch out for the FLORR” on the back. Ray has no idea what this means but considers it for a while anyway, because it seems like it could be important: “Tiny things take on significance when I’m away from home. I’m on the alert for omens. Odd things happen when you get out of town.”

They do happen. You are standing there on Kingsland Road in East London, having one of your nervous breakdowns about the strong likelihood of fucking up absolutely everything in your life, pouring a Diet Coke into your open mouth with your head tilted back at an angle that makes you look like Ernie from Sesame Street, as you can see from your reflection in the window of an empty shop that has a sign saying HAZAL NUTS above the front door, and this shockingly beautiful woman walks past. She is rifling angrily through her big shiny bag with its million extraneous straps, digging away at it with fast little paws like a rabbit, until she pulls out a big roll of smiley face stickers, holds it up to her disgusted, perfect face, and dashes it to the ground. She stalks off. At a party, a man who has been talking to you about diseases stops midsentence and says that he is sorry, he has to leave—he must go and check on Pauline immediately. You assume from the way he says it that Pauline is his cat or his pet snake, but she turns out to be his girlfriend. Pauline! I never really understood before what you were supposed to do with these oddly freighted moments, dense with potentially hilarious significance. Write them down, okay, and then what? Just leave them there? Do they not need to be marshaled in service of some wider narrative about your time in London, or about what you have recently found out regarding diseases? This stuff used to happen and I’d tell myself to write it down, but I wouldn’t. I’d just think, Au revoir, Pauline, you are not a pet, you are a womanand attempt to retrain my focus on whatever I felt was important. Reading and rereading The Dog of the South has changed that.

What Portis’s novel is actually about, I think, is the exhilaration of noticing, and of keeping a record so that you can look at it later and see what kind of person you are, or were. This is what you picked out, what your attention made special, what you thought was funny, what you found worth slowing down for as you sprinted around in your amazing shoes. The slow accumulation of apparently insignificant detail in The Dog of the South in fact forms the basis of the narrative. Near the beginning, Ray says, “In South Texas I saw three interesting things. The first was a tiny girl, maybe ten years old, driving a 1965 Cadillac. She wasn’t going very fast, because I passed her, but still she was cruising right along, with her head tilted back and her mouth open and her little hands gripping the wheel.” The tiny girl doesn’t reappear, and there is no good reason for her to be there. She doesn’t advance the plot or do anything but cruise on past with her head back. She is intriguing, though, and funny, and therefore indispensable, just like my orange peel incident.

She also tells you something about Ray, who is always on the lookout for signs and portents. In Belize, he sees some men skinning a snake and stops to watch. Not because snakes have any bearing on his pursuit of Norma and Dupree, but because “There, I thought, is something worth watching.” He stores up encounters and people like little rocks and ticket stubs in the bottom of a handbag. Later, he’ll imagine, for instance, what an old man he met back in Arkansas could be up to right now. Maybe he is lying with his pearly shins exposed, watching a hard-hitting documentary on TV. The name KARL is carved into the headboard of one of the motels Ray stays in: “Each time I woke up, I was confused and then I would see that KARL and get my bearings. I would think about Karl for a few minutes. He had thought it a good thing to leave his name there, but, ever wary, not his full name. I wondered if he might be in the next room.” On the alert for chance messages, Ray retains them to use as navigation points whenever he begins to feel lost, or lonely. I do the same thing now: I currently have four notebooks rattling around in my suitcase, full of extraneous details that I could not do without.

My copy of The Dog of the South looks aggressively used nowadays, as if it has been set upon by someone who only half understands what a book is for. I’ve underlined sentences on every page and drawn wiggly lines down the sides of whole paragraphs. Arrows loop all over the place, traveling from blocks of text to a scrawled “LOL.” Though I am on my way to becoming the kind of person who carries a notebook at all times, I occasionally forget, which means there are notes all over this novel that have nothing to do with its contents. There are phone numbers, and an account of a conversation I had with a man who said that he drinks cognac when he has “helicopters inside his mind.” There are reminders to call my mother, or book a ticket, or apologize to someone for being late. There are a number of juice stains from when I became briefly addicted to cherry Capri Sun (disgusting). The book is going to fall to pieces at some stage, and then I will buy another copy to carry around in my bag, and every time I see it I will experience that little shock of recognition and think: “There I am. That’s what I’m like.”


Rosa Lyster is researching a book about the global water crisis.