Sometimes you read a book at the wrong time. That was the case for me with Charles Portis’ 1968 novel “True Grit” (Tusk/Overlook: 236 pp., $14.95 paper), which I first picked up in the early 1970s, after seeing the film with John Wayne. Back then, I had no idea what Portis was doing; I read the book as if it were in the vein of, say, Sid Fleischman’s “By the Great Horn Spoon!,” a novel for young readers about the Gold Rush. Both take place in the Old West, and both involve adolescent protagonists, but there the resemblance ends.
“True Grit,” rather, operates in the tradition of Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man” and David Shetzline’s “DeFord,” both of which were published, perhaps not coincidentally, within a few years of Portis’ book. Laconic, Western, trafficking in the substrata of American mythos, it also has a lot in common with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” as Donna Tartt points out in her afterword to a new edition of the novel released to promote the Coen brothers’ movie remake, which opens Wednesday. Like Twain, Portis is a master of voice, of deadpan narration played for comic effect. And like Twain also, he respects his young narrator as a human being with a fully developed moral sensibility, even when the adults in the novel don’t.
The story is pretty basic: 14-year-old Mattie Ross, of Yell County, Ark., hires a U.S. marshal named Rooster Cogburn to go after the man who shot and killed her father in nearby Fort Smith. It is the 1870s, and the pursuit takes them into Indian Territory, which, Cogburn keeps insisting, is no place for a teenage girl. He’s right, but one of the abiding truths of the novel is that it is Mattie, and not Cogburn — or LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins them — who is the real adult here, the only one with a sense of what’s at stake. “I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task,” she tells us early in the novel, in a typically matter-of-fact aside.
What this means is that Mattie will do what’s necessary, no matter how challenging or difficult. The same is true of Cogburn, who functions as a kind of opposing axis, a force of chaos and ambiguity. If your only memory of him comes from Wayne’s tough yet charming film portrayal, you’re in for a surprise; the Cogburn of the novel is resolutely amoral, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, the Confederate guerrillas who, in August 1863, massacred more than 150 civilians in Lawrence, Kan. Portis is subtle about the implications, but the message is clear: Here we have an untamed man, honorable only to a point, and willing to do almost anything to achieve his ends. That this might also be said of Mattie is one of the potent ironies of “True Grit,” which becomes, in its way, an unlikely love story, the saga of how Cogburn and Mattie meet their match.
All of this comes at a price, of course. Mattie may want revenge, and Cogburn redemption, but both must pay in extreme ways. Portis never flinches from that sense of balance, of consequence; his novel is blunt, brutal at times, and imbued with a profound understanding of compromise and loss. Yet through it all, Mattie perseveres. Or, as she puts it in the middle of the novel: “If you want anything done right, you will have to see to it yourself every time.”
—David L. Ulin