Undoubtedly, the book that Charles Portis is best known for is one that, indirectly at least, got both John Wayne and Jeff Bridges nominated for Academy Awards. It's a fine book, to be sure, better than either of its film adaptations, but it isn't Portis' best work, not by a long shot.
Having failed, thus far, to read Portis' entire catalog, I can't say, for sure, whether The Dog of the South is his best work, either. But it's a fair bit better than True Grit. And that's saying something.
The Dog of the South is the story of a man whose wife runs off with his friend and his car; a man determined to get the car back and maybe the wife, to boot. To do so, he travels down from Arkansas, through Texas, into Mexico and finally to Belize. Along the way he meets a cast of characters that are true characters indeed. One is Dr. Symes, desperate for a ride now that his bus, The Dog of the South, no longer runs. Their adventures are as madcap as a Hunter S. Thompson story, but with Portis using pathos in place of Thompson's fear and loathing.
Portis has a gift for language and for dialogue and they are in full effect in this book. This is, in fact, the book the Coen brothers should have adapted to film, it would have been a much better fit for their sensibilities (I need Luke Wilson for the lead role, and Brad Leland as Symes). It's hilarity never spills into all out silliness, but it is certainly hilarious. It also has an underlying sadness to it, the sadness of seeking mixed with the hope of finding. It's a road novel and a buddy comedy and an existential crisis all rolled into one. It's not only the best book that I've read this month, it's the best I've read in quite some time. It also ends just about perfectly, something that even the best books struggle to do.
Roy Blount, Jr. once said that "Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he'd rather be funny." I'd say he'd rather be Charles Portis; fierce and funny and sympathetic and sorrowful. The Dog of the South is all these things and more. It is, quite simply, a pleasure and a thrill.