Ray Midge (a 26-year-old journalist in Little Rock) was moderately upset when his wife Norma ran off with a rival -- party because they took his credit cards, one of his guns and, worst of all, his Ford Torino. "The Dog of the South" is the story of how he tracked them in an epic (though, on the whole, unsuccessful) journey through Texas, Mexico and the British Honduras, how he found Norma in a hospital, more dead than alive, nursed her back to health, brought her home and lost her again a few months later.
It is a story of lost souls, hardship, constant misunderstanding and suffering, trickery and violence. If it weren't so darned funny, it would be a tragedy.
As in his earlier novel, "True Grit," Portis populates his exotic landscape with odd but clearly homespun American types, and in his dialogue he has caught to perfection the special intonations of American vocal chords, the motley concerns -- ranging from eternal salvation to a quick buck -- that occupy the American soul.
"Jack became solemn and he began to pose rhetorical questions, 'What is everyone looking for?' he said. Norma didn't hesitate; she said everybody was looking for love. I gave the question some thought and then declared that everybody was looking for a good job of work to do. Jack said no, that many people were looking for those things, but that everybody was looking for a place where he could get food cheap -- on a regular basis."
This dialogue, apparently not connected to anything else, comes a few paragraphs before the book's conclusion and contains its final revelation. As usually happens when people talk about "everybody," Ray and Norma are talking about themselves -- in a sense, explaining why ultimately they are unable to share their lives. He is unsettled, dropping in and out of college, sampling careers (mostly in his imagination) and uncomfortable in the shadow of a prosperous, self-made father. She yearns for romance:
"She talked about applying for a job as a stewardess with Braniff Airlines . . . She wanted to dye her hair. She wanted to change her name to Staci or Pam or April. She wanted to open a shop selling Indian jewelry. It wouldn't have hurt me to discuss this shop idea with her -- big profits are made every day in that silver and turquoise stuff -- but I couldn't be bothered."
Guy Dupree, a friend of Ray Midge with whom Norma ran off to British Honduras, was also a romantic of sorts, but at another extreme, one bordering on paranoia. After reading or being told some obscure point about politics, he "turned mean and silent," then began to write threatening letters to the president, "calling him a coward and a mangry rat with scabs on his ears, and he even challenged him to a fistfight on Pennsylvania Avenue."
The letters got more and more threatening, until finally Dupree found himself in jail, awaiting trial. When he left Little Rock with Norma, he was defaulting on bail -- clearly the end of the line -- and the road he took with Norma, the road along which Midge traced him, aided by the returned credit cards slips he had forged, sometimes looks like a segment of Dante's Inferno.
The resemblance comes up obliquely in a dialogue with Mrs. Nell Symes, an old American missionary running a mission in British Honduras and trying to forget her personal failure, a son who was drummed out of the medical profession and makes a precarious living in a variety of confidence rackets.
"What about Heaven and Hell," she asks Midge. "Do you believe those places exist?"
His answer is pure middle-American: "Well, I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised either way. I try not to think about it. It's just so odd to think that people are walking around in Heaven and Hell."
"Yes, but it's odd to find ourselves walking around here too, isn't it?"
If you look at the story, its characters and its landscapes long enough, the shape that begins to emerge is the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice -- a journey into Hell to bring back an abducted wife who is briefly recovered and then lost again, irrevocably. But this is an Orpheus updated and wildly Americanized, and its essential tragedy is that Ray Midge, unlike his prototype, is not a poet.
The second time Norma runs off, it is by herself, not to British Honduras but to visit a friend in Memphis. "The next thing I knew," Midge concludes, "she had her own apartment over there, and a job doing something at a television station. She said she might come back but she didn't do it and I let her go that time. It's only about 130 miles to Memphis but I didn't go after her again."