RIP Charles Portis

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RIP Charles Portis, 1933-2020

The Arkansas Times and other sources have reported that the novelist Charles Portis has died at the age of 86.

Portis published five novels in his life: NorwoodThe Dog of the SouthMasters 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.

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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.

 

Three Books

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Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. 1985 first-edition hardback from Knopf. Jacket design by Sara Eisenman; jacket illustration by Dagmar Frinta.

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The Dog of the South by Charles Portis. 1985 trade paperback from Windstone Trade. Cover art by Linda Bordelon; no designer credited.

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True Grit by Charles Portis. 1968 hardback Book Club from Simon & Schuster. Jacket design by Paul Davis.

I picked up a 1985 Vintage Contemporaries edition of Charles Portis’s first novel Norwood this summer and promptly snorted the thing up my brain. I then sought out the rest of Portis, and read most of it, with the exception of Gringos, which I’m, I don’t know, saving, if that makes sense.

True Grit might be the best of the novels, from a technical standpoint. Walker Percy’s blurb on the back of my copy compares it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and he’s not wrong. Mattie Ross’s is as achieved and engrossing and complex as Huck’s, a wonderful layering of author-narrator-speaker. The prose is beautiful and Mattie is an endearing American hero. I wish I had read it years ago. I’ll make sure my kids don’t repeat my error. Like Huck FinnTrue Grit seems like a book one returns to like an old friend, only to find the friend has changed in some deep way. (But of course it’s only you that’s changed you old bastard, reading now through older dimmer eyes.)

While True Grit is likely Portis’s best novel, my favorite in the quartet I’ve read is The Dog of the South, a road trip novel, shaggy, grotesque, and very, very funny. It reads like a novel that Barry Hannah was never quite sober enough to manage—or maybe that’s unfair (I love Hannah, godbless his soul)—maybe what I mean is that Portis’s loose ironic folk-blues ballad of a novel has more structure than Hannah’s jazz. Anyway, I loved Dog, but in spite of and because of its faults.

Masters of Atlantis is the strangest in the quartet. It’s a novel about con-men and poseurs, secret societies and secret scams, capitalism and the price of knowledge. Again, a very American novel, whatever that means. Atlantis has a Pynchonian paranoid vibe and a Pynchonian zaniness. It also belongs to the American tradition of grifter novels (think of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, or Baum’s Oz, or Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or Gatsby, etc.). Atlantis, told in a third-person voice, feels a bit more distant than 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. Atlantis also covers a hearty lifetime of secret society shenanigans. It’s a loose, shaggy epic, and seems to sprawl beyond its 250-odd pages. In any case, I ate it up, just like I ate up the other three. I waited far too long for Charles Portis, but I suppose late is better than never. Highly recommended.