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‘True Grit’ novelist Charles Portis, compared to Mark Twain, dies at age 86

John Wayne, left, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell in the 1969 movie "True Grit," based on the novel by Charles Portis.
(Paramount Home Video)

It was an unusual succession of phone calls.

The year was 1968, and the world was buzzing over “True Grit,” a new novel by Charles Portis slated for release that summer. Other book publishers deluged its publisher, Simon & Schuster, with phone calls praising the highly anticipated western novel. It was not common practice for one publisher to call another to compliment a novel.

But the story of a teenage girl who seeks revenge for the death of her father became an instant favorite among critics and creatives, as did other works by its author, such as “Norwood” and “Gringos.”

Portis, whose bloody, bestselling “True Grit” was twice adapted into Oscar-nominated films, died Monday in a hospice in Little Rock, Ark., his brother Jonathan Portis told the Associated Press. Portis, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was 86.

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“True Grit,” the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross who enlists the tough, drunken, one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn to find her father’s killer and bring him to justice, was an instant bestseller.

The novel first ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post before it was published as a hardback. In 1969, the screen adaptation was released featuring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall and Kim Darby. The film brought Wayne, who played Cogburn, his first Academy Award. Years later, the Duke reprised his role as the marshal in the 1975 sequel “Rooster Cogburn” alongside Katharine Hepburn.

Decades later, the famed western story reemerged when Joel and Ethan Coen created a “True Grit” more loyal to the original that kept Portis’ tone and odd language and restored the novel’s bleak conclusion. It starred Jeff Bridges as Cogburn and then-newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Ross, along with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.

The film was lauded by critics, including The Times’ Kenneth Turan, who praised Steinfeld’s performance and noted “that bleak but completely delightful Portis novel, in which a much older Mattie remembers the frontier West of the 1870s, has been charming and disconcerting people since it was published in 1968.” The Coen brothers’ film garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, including best picture, director and adapted screenplay, a lead actor nod for Bridges and a supporting actress nomination for Steinfeld.

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And it brought renewed attention to Portis — whom some compared to Mark Twain — and his acclaimed novel, whose sales again skyrocketed, topping the New York Times bestseller list.

In a 2010 review, Times book critic David L. Ulin reread the novel and called it “blunt, brutal and imbued with a profound understanding of compromise and loss” and likened it to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“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,” Ulin wrote.

Admired by peers such as Tom Wolfe, Roy Blount Jr. and Larry McMurtry, Portis emerged into the literary world with his humorous but moderately successful 1966 novel “Norwood,” about an ex-Marine who treks from Texas to New York to collect a meager debt, but ends up on a bus with a random girl, a chicken and a circus dwarf.

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Portis’ “The Dog of the South” from 1979 follows Ray Midge’s journey south of the U.S. border in search of his wife Norma, who ran off with her ex-husband and Ray’s credit cards and late-model Ford Torino. “Masters of Atlantis” from 1985 tells the story of Lamar Jimmerson, who founds a society inspired by the wisdom of the lost city of Atlantis.

In “Gringos” (1991), Portis’ fifth and last novel, American expatriate and former Marine Jimmy Burns adventures through Mexico and encounters an ecstasy-seeking girl, hippies and end-of-the-world cultists.

Often nicknamed “Charlie” or “Buddy,” Portis was born in El Dorado, Ark., in 1933, one of four children of a housewife and a school superintendent. He was an avid, devoted fan of comic books as a kid, and immersed himself equally in films and family stories.

He served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, then attended the University of Arkansas, where he received a journalism degree in 1958. As a student, he worked part time for the local Northwest Arkansas Times, where he edited columns by stringers and later confessed he edited all the character out of their copy. He went on to serve as a night police reporter for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., and then as London bureau chief for the New York Herald Tribune, but left his gig to pursue fiction.

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Though Portis was in and out of public consciousness throughout his career, he was known to be elusive and preferred obscurity. He sometimes responded to letters from readers, but he mostly stayed true to young Mattie Ross’ philosophy in “True Grit” of dodging journalists.

“I do not fool around with newspapers,” Ross says in the film. “The paper editors are great ones for reaping where they have not sown. Another game they have is to send reporters out to talk to you and get your stories free. I know the young reporters are not paid well and I would not mind helping those boys out with their ‘scoops’ if they could ever get anything right.”


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