Sara has been recommending the fiction of Charles Portis to me for some time and, in anticipation of the new Coen Brothers’ adaptation, I just read True Grit, his 1968 novel, which became the Glen Campbell–and yes, John Wayne for whom I have unguarded cinematic affection–movie in 1969.
Oh, what a thrill to read. Do you ever read something and suddenly see the DNA of 50 novels you’ve read over the years, suddenly understanding those novels would not be possible without this book you’ve finally read? Suddenly, beloved authors such as George Pelecanos, Tom Franklin and Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone in such perfect lineage) seem all the richer to me.
I think Sara told me The Dog of the South is her favorite Portis novel, and Scott P. just recommended Masters of Atlantis to me. I only wish there were more.
True Grit is a first-person reminiscence: Mattie Ross recalls, much later in life, the winter of 1873, when, as a fourteen-year-old from Yell County, Arkansas, she hunted down her father’s killer, calling on the occasionally dubious help of a hardboiled U.S. marshal, Rooster Cogurn, and a dashing Texas Ranger. Like most books, it’s a tale of a journey, and wily and determined Matty takes a rough one, her eyes forced open to all the hardness (and much of the beauty) of the world.
I can speak only for True Grit, but it has the thing I most love in a book: a contagion quality, where the language (both filled with formal antiquities and gorgeous slang), signifiers (the “corn dodgers” they eat), the parade of self-pitying and/or melancholic “hard men” Mattie faces, the mythic qualities of the journey…well, they all paint a wholly different world that you enter on the first page and never really leave.
A favorite moment, which also shows the abundant humor in the book too:
Rooster talked all night. I would doze off and wake up and he would still be talking. Some of his stories had too many people in them and were hard to follow but they helped to pass the house and took my mind off the cold. I did not give credence to everything he said. He said he knew a woman in Sedalia, Missouri, who had stepped on a needle as a girl and nine years later the needle worked out of the thigh of her third child. He said it puzzled the doctors.
Here’s a great piece by Ed Park in The Believer about Portis. Noting the special quality that Portis’s sporadic literary output (and removal from the publishing world) imparts upon his books, he uses a phrase that seems about as perfect as any I can imagine: “a shimmering coat of perfect strangeness.”