Author Wells Tower (who, come on and finish a novel or another story collection or something, please) has a nice obituary in The New Yorker today for the novelist Charles Portis. From Tower’s essay:
“Only a mean person won’t enjoy it” is something a critic once wrote about True Grit. In part, I love Portis because I feel less mean when I read him. It’s not just that his novels are gentle and funny; it’s that Portis’s books have a way of conscripting the reader into their governing virtues—punctuality, automotive maintenance, straight talk, emotional continence. Puny virtues, as Portis himself once put it, yet it is a great and comforting gift (in these days especially) to offer readers escape into a place where such virtues reign.
It’s hard to know whether Portis’s work ushered much comfort into his own life. My sense is that he was lonely. I imagine he had a fair bit in common with Jimmy Burns, described in Gringos as a “hard worker,” “solitary as a snake,” and, yes, “punctual.” Portis never married and had no children. He never published another novel after Gringos, from 1991. The closest he gets to self-portraiture comes in his short memoir “Combinations of Jacksons,” the essay published in The Atlantic. Toward the essay’s close, the author spots an “apparition” of his future self in the form of a geezer idling his station wagon alongside Portis at a traffic light in Little Rock. He wore “the gloat of a miser,” Portis writes. “Stiff gray hairs straggled out of the little relief hole at the back of his cap. . . . While not an ornament of our race, neither was he, I thought, the most depraved member of the gang.”