On the Road With a Grandma Named Pincer

THE DOG OF THE NORTH, by Elizabeth McKenzie

In the road novel “The Dog of the South,” Charles Portis’s feckless hero Ray Midge traces a route from Little Rock to Belize in pursuit of an acquaintance named Guy Dupree, who has stolen his car, his credit cards and his wife. The dog of the title is the name of a bus belonging to a crooked doctor Ray encounters in Mexico. The dog is also a dog (Guy Dupree’s) and it’s also, arguably, Ray.

“The Dog of the North," a new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie (“The Portable Veblen”), borrows that book’s road trip structure, canine preoccupations and antic style. Penny Rush has quit her job as a dental receptionist to travel south from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara. She has just under $850 to her name, a broken marriage behind her, and has been tasked with helping to mitigate two crises related to her grandparents.

Penny’s grandmother, known as Pincer, presents the more pressing of the two. She is in her 80s, suffers intermittent dementia, lives in a house full of rats and hoarded jars. Her living arrangements have raised alarms with Adult Protective Services. Penny has been summoned by Pincer’s accountant and close associate Burt Lampey, a large, bewigged man in his 50s, with problems of his own.

Burt has a dog, a “woolly orange puffball” named Kweecoats, but the title also refers to his old, sea-green van: “He said his ex had named it in honor of a beloved novel with a similar name.” Burt and Penny make a plan to remove Pincer from her home and have it cleaned, which sets into motion a series of events involving intercontinental travel, Burt’s attractive younger brother Dale and a murder investigation.

From Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara to Brisbane, Australia, to Tyler, Texas, the plot gallops along, leaning heavily on people going to the hospital. Burt is admitted with a ruptured ulcer, Pincer is admitted for psychiatric evaluation, Penny is admitted for a septic stab wound in the leg, then again for a gash in the other leg. These people are unable to avoid bodily injury.

The zaniness is occasionally exhausting. Irradiated bones are discovered in a woodshed. Something called the Scintillator, which looks “like an undersized rocket launcher,” is seized from Pincer’s house. An estranged biological father named Gaspard launches a sneak attack. Penny and her grandfather witness their rented Land Cruiser swallowed up by a sinkhole.

If you can bear with it through these high jinks, the heart of the book concerns Penny’s parents, who disappeared on a trip to Mount Isa in the Australian outback. They had moved to Australia “because they had liked the climate and the geomorphology” and also possibly “to denounce the American Dream.”

Neither their remains nor their car was ever recovered, and there lingers, in Penny’s mind anyway, the possibility that their disappearance was deliberate. “Though nearly five years had passed,” she reflects, “I hadn’t really been able to accept or even think about it.”

Here is where McKenzie’s book differs most from Portis’s: It’s ultimately a family novel. Penny’s inability to get her life together traces back to her family history. She seems “to be trapped in a continual reckoning between present and past.” As the caper wanes, McKenzie allows Penny a modicum of closure. This is the sweet, yet cautionary note the book ends on. The past is a sinkhole, it seems to say. It’ll swallow you, if you’re not careful, and your Land Cruiser, too.

Erin Somers is the author of the novel “Stay Up With Hugo Best.”

THE DOG OF THE NORTH | By Elizabeth McKenzie | 336 pp. | Penguin Press | $28

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