Charles Portis was not only one of the best writers you probably never heard of — he was almost certainly the best writer who was never taught to you in school either.
Portis, who died Monday at 86, was that good. He was a brilliant storyteller and comic inventor of wildly believable con men, losers and seekers of truth (or maybe just the whereabouts of their errant wives), and it would be hard to find anything about him that could produce a passable academic essay about gender-stereotyping, or deconstructing the western metaphysic. You would simply be too busy having a great time.
If you know his name at all it’s probably from one of the two film adaptations of his bestselling novel, “True Grit.” The 1968 book introduces the intrepid 14-year-old Mattie Ross “from Yell County near Dardanelle” who goes off to avenge the murder of her father by the deeply ungrateful Tom Chaney.
“You killed my father when he was trying to help you,” Mattie tells Chaney, after her first shot from a dinosaur-like old pistol knocks him up against a tree. “I have one of the gold pieces you took from him. Now give me the other.”
It’s not that either of the film adaptations are bad — they’re quite enjoyable. It’s just that the simplified movie through-line (a good girl defeats a bad man) doesn’t convey the genius that drives that marvelous book — which is, as in every Portis novel, the endlessly woolly voices of his characters.
Sure, moviegoers remember the larger-than-life “Rooster” Cogburn (played by John Wayne in 1969 and Jeff Bridges in 2010). But what readers remember is how vividly Portis’ characters arrive in a narrative scene, such as when Mattie first sees Rooster walk into court:
“I was surprised when an old one-eyed jasper that was built along the lines of Grover Cleveland went up and was sworn. I say ‘old.’ He was about forty years of age. The floor boards squeaked under his weight. He was wearing a dusty black suit of clothes and when he sat down I saw that his badge was on his vest. It was a little silver circle with a star in it. He had a mustache like Cleveland too.”
Every time Rooster speaks, it’s with the inflection of a man trying to speak above his rude beginnings, such as when he refers to a pair of dead outlaws late in the novel: “Their depredations is now come to a fitting end.” What more could any of us hope for on our tombstones than a line like that in all its crude elegance?
Portis was a poet of the vernacular, in the tradition of Twain, Saroyan or Runyan. The odd ways his characters spoke reflected who they were and how they thought, and while they were often thieves, madmen, losers and dreamers, they were rarely cruel, ugly or vulgar.
Many times I listed my favorite Portis novels — such as “The Dog of the South” (1979) or “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) — on the syllabus of my undergraduate modern novel course at the University of Connecticut, or a graduate seminar in contemporary American fiction. But I could never come up with anything better to tell my students than this: holding up one of his books, I would fan through the pages at random, like a magician fanning a deck of cards, and tell them: “Go ahead. Pick a passage. Any passage. Now read it out loud and tell me, it isn’t brilliant?”
We would take turns reading his paragraphs out loud. We would laugh. We would be moved. The guy never wrote a dull paragraph. And he definitely never wrote a bad opening paragraph, such as this, from “The Dog of the South”: “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October. They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also taken from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles. It was just like him to pick the .410–a boy’s first gun. I suppose he thought it wouldn’t kick much, that it would kill or at least rip up the flesh in a satisfying way without making a lot of noise or giving much of a jolt to his sloping monkey shoulder.”
I mean, come on. How can you “explicate” or analyze” a paragraph like that? The story is already banging along well before the paragraph even starts. This Guy Dupree character is a wild man who won’t stop at stealing a wife, a “good raincoat” or a shotgun to rest against his “monkey shoulder” — and our central character is already on his way to get them all back!
There’s a famous passage in J.D. Salinger’s “A Catcher in the Rye” when Holden Caulfield notes how he often wants to meet a writer whose work he enjoys, but that’s not my experience from years of reading Portis. Sure, I would have liked to meet him, or even grab a beer. But the pleasures I enjoyed as a reader of Portis never required his presence. His books were so good that they were all I ever needed to know about him.
Like many of his characters, Portis traveled far when he was young, returned home quickly (to his native city of Little Rock, Ark.), and rarely traveled much again. He seemed to enjoy his reflections on adventuring more than the actual adventuring.
Born in 1933 (“An ominous Dr. Slaughter delivered me.”), he joined the Marines out of high school and later received a journalism degree from the University of Arkansas. He worked for the Arkansas Gazette and Newsweek, often covering stories on civil rights, and once interviewed Malcolm X.
He also worked for the International Herald Tribune, including as London bureau chief. His friends and colleagues included Lewis Lapham, Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, who later recalled Portis’ sudden departure from the profession in 1964: “Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called “Norwood.” Then he wrote “True Grit,” which was a bestseller. The reviews were terrific… A fishing shack! in Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true.”
Portis rarely left Little Rock again, according to friend Jay Jennings, who edited the excellent “Escape Velocity,” a 2012 “miscellany “of his short stories and journalism. As Jennings writes, Portis led “a fairly ordinary life, which includes having a beer at a local bar and visiting family and watching the Super Bowl and enjoying conversation with friends and going to the library.”
What was always extraordinary, however, was the devotion Portis generated in his readers. One of my favorite quotes about Portis is this one from novelist Ed Park: “He has written five remarkable, deeply entertaining novels (three of them masterpieces, though which three is up for debate.)” But perhaps the truest and most succinct line comes from Jonathan Lethem: “Yes, he’s everybody’s favorite least-known great novelist.”
His admirers have grown over the years, and appreciations have been written by Donna Tartt, Ron Rosenbaum and Nora Ephron. Wells Tower entitled his essay about Portis’ 1991 novel, “Gringos” — about a small-time truck-hauling expat in Mexico consorting with relic hunters, UFOlogists and the usual Portisian grifters — “The Book That Changed My Life.”
It’s pointless to argue about which Portis book was better than any other Portis book, because I challenge you to open any book at any page and find a passage not worth reading. Go ahead, I dare you. Pick a passage, any passage. And read.
You’ll be glad you did.
Bradfield is the author of “The History of Luminous Motion” and “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”