RIP Charles Portis, 1933-2020
Portis published five novels in his life: Norwood, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos, but he’s most likely well-known for his 1968 bestseller True Grit, which has been adapted to film twice. The first adaptation (1969), starring John Wayne, is a much broader affair than the Coen Brother’s 2010 take, which does a better job conveying the novel’s sharp humor. Neither can touch the novel, of course.
Walker Percy blurbed True Grit, comparing it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and he’s not wrong. Told in Mattie Ross’s clipped, witty, yet still-the-slightest-shade-naive voice, True Grit’s narrative voice echoes Huck’s, and is equally achieved and engrossing, a wonderful layering of author-narrator-speaker. The prose is beautiful and Mattie is an endearing, enduring American hero. True Grit is a novel that teens and adults alike will love, and revisit, each time finding it changed. I’m very sorry that I was forty when I first read it, but I can make sure my daughter doesn’t overlook it. True Grit is probably a perfect novel.
Portis’s first novel Norwood (1966) is the first novel I read by him. This impossibly-large but slim novel is the picaresque tale of Norwood Pratt, who kind of bumbles his way across the South after being discharged from the Marines. Portis taps into the same grotesque fount that fed Faulkner and Flannery, Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers, but he converts that fuel into something more exuberant, energetic, and joyful than anything those authors ever produced.
Eleven years after True Grit, Portis published The Dog of the South, which might be my favorite of the four I’ve read by him. This is a shaggy dog, a road trip novel, ribald, grotesque, and very, very funny. It reads like the novel that Barry Hannah was never quite sober enough to manage, a loose ironic folk-blues ballad of a novel with more structure and tighter refrains than Hannah’s wild jazz. Dog may have some faults, but it’s a wonderful read, and its ending reverberates with earned pathos.
1985’s Masters of Atlantis is probably the consensus favorite among Portis fans. Easily the most sprawling of his books, both in geographical scope and time, Masters is a novel of con-men and poseurs, secret societies and secret scams, capitalism and the price of knowledge. Despite an international cast, like Portis’s first three novels Masters is a very American novel, whatever that means. There’s a Pynchonian paranoid vibe and a Pynchonian zaniness to Masters—the novel reminds me very much of Pynchon’s underrated Against the Day. Masters of Atlantis also belongs to the American tradition of grifter novels, like Melville’s The Confidence-Man, Baum’s Oz books, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and even The Great Gatsby. (It’s more fun to read than any of those.) Told in a third-person voice, Masters feels positively epic compared to the first-person immediacy of True Grit or The Dog of the South, or even the third-person voice of Norwood, which hovers around its protagonist’s brain pan and eye line, and doesn’t flit much farther. Masters is a loose, shaggy epic that seems to sprawl beyond its 250-odd pages.
I have yet to read Portis’s final novel Gringos (1991), which centers on expatriate Americans living in Merida who raid Mayan tombs and hunt UFOs (this may be an inaccurate description). I secured a copy when I was on my Portis binge, but when I finished Masters of Atlantis, I had to pause. Like many readers who fall in love with an author—especially an author with such a slim oeuvre—I tend to read greedily, voraciously, as the cliche goes. Finding Portis at forty felt like a bizarre gift from nowhere (a gift from the author himself, of course). I read all of Cormac McCarthy in my late twenties, an act I now regret. It’s not that I can’t re-read McCarthy—I do all the time—but unless we get another novel, it’s like, That’s it. When I truly fell in love with Pynchon and Gaddis, in my thirties, I consumed their novels, of course, re-reading books like Gravity’s Rainbow an J R—but also leaving one, y’know, in my back pocket, metaphorically: Bleeding Edge and A Frolic of His Own, respectively. Gringos is on the same mental shelf as those volumes, but I’ve taken it down from the actual shelf it was just-until-now resting upon, a to-be-read stack. I used the adjective final in the first sentence of the previous paragraph to describe Portis’s 1991 novel Gringos. It’s possible that there are more novels, of course, finished or otherwise, and I have to admit that I’ll look forward to seeing them. In the meantime, I’ll start Gringos.