perfect strangeness

by Megan Abbott

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.”

16 Comments to “perfect strangeness”

  1. There ARE more! NORWOOD and GRINGOS. I love both of those, too. But I was sad when I finished GRINGOS recently because that’s it. So far! You will love the exclamation points in DOG OF THE SOUTH!

  2. Oh, another exclamator! I knew it!

  3. I am so excited you read this I can barely contain myself! True Grit is actually his only book I have not read, although I have two copies right here–I am hoping to read it before the movie. So funny, I was going to ask Scott Phillips if he was a Portis fan after reading RUT! I don’t know if I can even say anymore which is my favorite–Gringos, maybe. And Masters of Atlantis has the best ending of any book, ever. And yes, the exclamation points in Dog of the South (Maintenance! Maintenance!) Jack, do you have a favorite?

    • Miss Sara, I love THE DOG OF THE SOUTH and MASTERS OF ATLANTIS the best, probably. PROBABLY! Theresa has taught TRUE GRIT to undergrads a couple of times. Well, Megan, Portis is only an exclamator IN CHARACTER, not all out of control like a couple of people I could name! His exclamation points in DOG certainly influenced the title novella of my first book, and I know that Tom Franklin was mightily influenced by the quotation marks in TRUE GRIT when he wrote SMONK. Portis, among all his other accomplishments, is a great punctuator! One time our neighbor, who is Faulkner’s niece, said she would invite us over if Portis came over for dinner (which he has in the past! They are buddies! In fact, she calls him by his nickname, which is apparently “Buddy”) but I am not going to hold my breath, and anyway I would probably faint.

      • So you say, Jack, but what IF he were also an exclamator in other forms, such as personal correspondence? We don’t know FOR CERTAIN, do we?

        (I would faint too!)

  4. Great post. I think “Dog of the South” is my favorite by Portis. “Masters of Atlantis” not so much, but I’ll still be rereading it when I get the chance, on the theory that anything by Charles Portis is better than most things by everyone else. I haven’t seen the John Wayne film of “True Grit,” but i’m looking forward to watching it and the coen adaptation… portis comes up with some great dialogue and it’ll be fun to see it on screen.

    • Ellen—most definitely! I think a challenge will be adapting the strength of Mattie’s narrator voice to film (I wonder if they will do a voiceover? I’m generally not a voiceover fan, but ….)

  5. He doesn’t like to talk about his fiction, but he doesn’t mind talking about his newspaper days so much. Here is an interview about that (one of my students sent it to me a while back):

  6. Jack, I am in awe of your personal connection! Can I please come to dinner that night too? I KNEW I should have stayed in the south. And yes he IS a great punctuator– i really divide my own writing into pre- and post- Portis because there is so much to learn from him.

    Masters of Atlantis! Did I mention the ending? And how it’s the best ending of any book ever written? And yes Ellen, I think we all agree on Dog of the South being up there as well!

  7. This review is just another example of why this blog is such a boon to us all. You guys are awesome. And thanks for introducing me to Portis. Now I know what I want for Christmas. (Besides my two front teeth, that is.)

  8. I am so thrilled and abashed to be mentioned in the same post (breath) as Portis that I will simply punctuate: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Scott, it is an honor you well deserve!

  10. In addition to “True Grit,” Glen Campbell and Kim Darby also starred (sans Duke) in an adaptation of “Norwood.” I saw it when it was new and have almost no memory of it, except that Dom Deluise (I think) plays Norwood’s brother-in-law. What would be great is if we could somehow mount a production of, say, “Dog of the South” and put them in it. Then there would be a Campbell/Darby/Portis trilogy.

    • Scott you forgot to mention that Joe Namath is in NORWOOD. And the horrible theme song, which I think you can hear on youtube. JUST LAST NIGHT I was mentioning this movie to Laura Lippman, in person! And I was saying that Dom Deluise was perfect IN THEORY for the role of the brother-in-law, but other than that… WHY, GOD? WHY?

  11. Jack, I’d completely forgotten that Broadway Joe was in it….I just remember being incensed when Deluise claims that the exact center of the United States is in Nebraska.

  12. I always leave any conversation between Scott, Jack & Megan feeling like a dim witted younger brother, but also enlightened and glad I had the opportunity to learn from you guys. I read True Grit about 6 months ago & workin on The Dog of the South right now. I’ll definetly hunt down the others. If there is a more amazing place for literature than Oxford,Ms….can someone please point me there.

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