Of Gnats and Men: A New Reading of Portis

At last! The arrival in stores and in my hands of the newly reissued edition of Charles Portis’ criminally neglected American classic, The Dog of the South , has been the occasion of two kinds of thrills for me.

First there was the thrill of accomplishment, of a long quest fulfilled: Columns I’d written here in The Observer and in Esquire were directly responsible for getting all four of Mr. Portis’ out-of-print novels–beginning with the astonishing The Dog of the South , to be followed by Norwood , Masters of Atlantis and Gringos –back in print again.

In my Esquire piece (“Our Least-Known Great Novelist,” January 1998), I’d called Mr. Portis an American analogue of Gogol, both hilarious and profound–and raged intemperately that it was “a crime and a scandal, it’s virtually clinically insane , that Portis’ last three books are out of print and not in paperback … some smart publisher will earn an honored place in literary history by bringing out a complete and accessible edition soon.”

Now let’s let Tracy Carns, publishing director of Overlook Press (founded by Peter Mayer), take up the story; “Over the years,” she says in the release accompanying The Dog of the South , “I had heard about these novels by the reclusive author but had never read them.… Then, about four years ago, I read an article by Ron Rosenbaum in The New York Observer raving about how great Portis was and what a scandal it was that the books were out of print. I tracked down copies at the Strand, read them and instantly became a Portis convert. We tried to acquire them … but there were some problems with rights, I believe. Then in January [1998] Ron Rosenbaum wrote another piece about Portis, in Esquire , calling him ‘our least known great novelist’ … and the books were now available. It’s a great thrill to be publishing them.”

A thrill for her, a thrill for me. I wish everyone would pay attention to my enthusiasms for overlooked literature the way Overlook Press has. And just in case anyone else in publishing is paying attention now, could someone please bring out a complete but portable edition of the great 17th-century comic-philosophic treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy , one of the supreme sui generis demented-genius works in the English language, a sort of encyclopedic spiritual twin of Tristram Shandy ? Just asking.

But the deeper thrill that came with the arrival of the lovely new edition of The Dog of the South (first published in 1979) was rereading it again–for perhaps the 10th time–and discovering this time a new and deeper level of understanding and appreciation of it. Or at least, a new way of seeing and articulating a secret source of its appeal.

Charles Portis is a tricky writer in that he rarely discloses explicitly any deeper resonance, any thematic preoccupation beneath the comic picaresque surface of his prose. On that level, The Dog of the South is pure wistful pleasure, the story of a quixotic quest undertaken by an unreliable, nerdy narrator named Ray Midge, who sets out from Little Rock, Ark., to track down his wife Norma, who’s run off with his ex-con best friend Dupree. Following a trail of credit card receipts generated by the profligate lovers who have stolen his Ford Torino, the hapless Midge hooks up with an even more grandiosely unreliable narrator, Dr. Reo Symes. One of the great con-man fabulists in American literature, one who can hold his own with Melville’s riverboat Confidence-Man, Dr. Symes is a defrocked doctor who lost his license over a miracle arthritis cure. “The Brewster Method,” he says. “For my money it’s never been discredited.” When he meets Ray Midge, he’s on the run from an obscure Ponzi scheme, a vanity publishing scam involving a yearbook of Texas County supervisors ( Stouthearted Men ). Traveling in a broken-down bus called “The Dog of the South,” Dr. Symes claims he’s being pursued by a fellow scam artist who once ran a sideshow featuring a “Fifty-Pound Rat From the Sewers of Paris.”

In previous columns about The Dog of the South I’d tended to neglect the narrator Ray Midge and to focus on Dr. Symes and on a fantastical figure he conjures up on the course of his journey with Ray Midge: a forgotten author of inspirational tomes for salesmen, John Selmer Dix, a misunderstood and persecuted genius, according to Dr. Symes, who sees Dix as the fount of all wisdom (“Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse,” Dr. Symes tells Midge). Dr. Symes insists that Dix had broken through to some new level of revelation in his last uncompleted work which he composed on incessant round-trip bus trips between El Paso and Los Angeles. A new level of revelation tragically lost to the world, Dr. Symes says when Dix’s legendary locked trunk disappeared in a Trailways haze upon his death.

As I put it in one of my previous raves for Mr. Portis, “it’s not the reality of Dix that obsesses Dr. Symes but the idea of Dix, the idea of someone somewhere who had it All Figured Out but who disappeared.… What Mr. Portis is getting at is the deep longing, the profound, wistful desperation in the American collective unconscious, to believe that somehow things do make some kind of sense … that there is an answer even if it’s locked in a trunk somewhere and we’ve lost the key .”

All of this is still true, I believe, and in that sense makes Charles Portis kin thematically to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, but in focusing on Dr. Symes and Dix I may have lost or at least neglected another key to The Dog of the South . One I think I found in rereading it this time, one that involves the narrator Ray Midge, his stream of consciousness, even his name. One I was tipped off to this time by the novel’s epigraph, a clue that had been (at least for me) hiding in plain sight all this time. A rare explicit disclosure of what he’s up to by a writer who ordinarily plays his cards very close to the vest (as I’ve learned from trying repeatedly to convince him to give me an interview).

I’d compare Mr. Portis’ reticence in The Dog of the South to Mark Twain’s in Life on the Mississippi . I’ll never forget how stunned and pleased and impressed I was when it suddenly dawned on me what was going on beneath the surface in Twain’s account of his experience as a cub pilot learning to navigate the tricky currents, the shifting and deceptive depths of the Mississippi–how to read the river, to find intelligible clues in the patter of ripples on the surface to the dangerous labyrinth of channels below.

In a lovely allusive fashion that in no way congests the flow of its story line, those chapters in Life on the Mississippi are Twain’s meditation on epistemology, on the ways in which human intelligence attempts to pilot a channel between the tricky, shifting shoals of reality and appearance, tries to fathom the depths, the black holes of the Unknowable beneath the surface of the river of sentience and experience.

If Twain is preoccupied with charting the hidden currents of the river of experience, the river that Mr. Portis sounds and charts in The Dog of the South is the stream of consciousness, the twists and turns, the curious and unpredictable patterns of attentiveness, the tracks and sidetracks of the train of thought.

The tipoff, that rare moment of disclosure of what Mr. Portis, in a sly, understated way, is up to, can be found in the epigraph, one that comes from a surprisingly arcane but richly suggestive source: Sir Thomas Browne, the wonderful 17th-century baroque prose stylist and Borgesian speculative essayist whose works (such as Urne Buriall and Religio Medici ) are inimitable idiosyncratic classics on the order of The Anatomy of Melancholy and Tristram Shandy .

Here’s the epigram from Browne with which Mr. Portis opens The Dog of the South :

… Even Animals near the Classis of plants seem to have the most restlesse motions. The Summer-worm of Ponds and plashes makes a long waving motion; the hair-worm seldom lies still. He that would behold a very anomalous motion, may observe it in the Tortile and tiring stroaks of Gnatworms.

On the surface, it’s a passage about the behavior of small organisms, insects mainly, worms and gnats: But it’s really about restlessness, about motion, the writhing, waving, contractile, tortile motion, the ceaseless, restless motion that seems to be some profound intractable essence of biological being, of sentience itself.

But at another level, it is about consciousness, about the way the mind winds and twists, the often comic idylls and eddies, the tortile twists and turns of the stream of consciousness. In choosing an epigraph about gnats and worms, Mr. Portis is not focusing on their insectitude so much as the way the study of tiny motions, those restless tortile twists and turns, tells so much about the workings of a supposedly higher intelligence.

Ray Midge’s surname, I was reminded upon checking the Oxford English Dictionary , is a synonym for gnat. “Midge: a popular name for many gnat-like insects.” Why this gnat, this particular Midge? It’s because of his gift (Mr. Portis’ gift, really) for a bemused attentiveness to the peculiar eddies in the stream of consciousness, the idiosyncrasies that are the fingerprints of human identity.

There’s a moment early on in Midge’s travels when he runs into “a gringo [who] owned a Chiclets factory in Guadalajara [who] described for me the first six plays of an important Stanford football game of 1935, or should I say, the first six plays from scrimmage since he didn’t count the kickoff as a play.”

It’s there, the tortile eddy of the stream of consciousness, in that phrase “or should I say, the first six plays from scrimmage.” Who cares how he counts the plays? What counts is Ray Midge’s constant, hypervigilant awareness of such apparently gnatlike distinctions. He’s fascinated by the divergent and digressive ways one counts and recounts experience, the ways one tells a story–and he’s fascinated by his own fascination by it, the way his train of thought often gets sidetracked by his observations of his observations.

“Tiny things take on significance when I’m away from home,” Ray Midge tells us; tiny things take on significance in Mr. Portis’ art–the universe in a grain of sand, the notions of a higher intelligence in the restless motions of a gnat. The meditative motion of gnats was, of course, important in a different way to Keats in his “Ode to Autumn.” (See my doctoral thesis on the gnat in English literature.)

But reading Mr. Portis reminds me more of Vladimir Nabokov’s brief, admiring study, Nikolai Gogol , with its brilliant self-referential description of Gogol’s creative process, the tortile working of Gogol’s mind, particularly in his Dead Souls , a comic picaresque novel which The Dog of the South resembles in certain ways. Nabokov evoked the way Gogol will appear to be describing the busy scene in the center of a Russian provincial town, briefly mentioning a horse-drawn coach passing through. The way Gogol will unexpectedly follow the coach, fascinated by the peculiarities of the coachman’s nose, then enter the coachman’s mind and his musings about dinner, utterly losing track of what had once appeared to be the object of his attention, endowing, engendering a figure who at first seemed a passing shadow with vivid fictive life before abandoning him forever.

Of course, this habit of seeming to lose track–the restless tortile digression and diversion of attention–is not the product of inattention but of a heightened attentiveness: an artistic strategy Nabokov reads into Gogol that may be a way of reading his own mind. There are ways in which Nabokov, the patrician exile polymath, and Mr. Portis, the reclusive Arkansas ex-newspaper man, could not seem less alike. But they share that heightened attentiveness to the restless currents and eddies of the stream of consciousness. In a certain way, both are esthetic entomologists if you will, students of different sorts of metaphorical insects: Mr. Portis focusing microscopic attention on the Brownian movement of tiny insects like gnats, finding in their tortile and digressive motions an image of the whorls and ridges of the human cortex, the idiosyncrasies of the thought process. Something similar drew Nabokov to obsessive attention to the whorls and patterns on the wings of his favored insects, his butterflies: he found in them the telltale fingerprints of creation.