JOHN BRUMMETT: A worthy hero

In the late 1980s and early 1990s it was my privilege to sit occasionally at a midtown bar near or next to Charles Portis, an early evening fixture.

He would sit on the stool leaning forward toward his whiskey, keeping his head down and his eyes averted from human contact.

He rather obviously was listening to everything the rest of us, mostly blowhards, were saying. Occasionally he would subtly reveal wry amusement or mild contempt or perhaps pity.

I picked up on that because I was watching him, hoping for some sign of connection or approval.

Then, sometimes, as he grew accustomed to you or drank a bit more, he'd open up. Usually, when it came to me, it was to lament my liberal politics. A Marine veteran of Korea, he professed to be conservative militarily, socially, culturally and economically.

I think he found me youthfully silly, not incorrectly.

One night he was talking to another barfly on the point that kids didn't have worthy heroes anymore. He turned to me and asked who my heroes were. Because I knew it would bug him, and because it was true, I said Bruce Springsteen and George Brett.

He told the other guy that was exactly what he was talking about.

I particularly liked an anecdote in one of this week's nationally published obituary tributes to Portis, who died Monday after years of Alzheimer's affliction. It was about the time a writer came to Little Rock to extol Portis as the greatest little-known novelist in the country.

The writer asked Portis if he considered himself a recluse, akin to J.D. Salinger. Portis shot back that his number was in the Little Rock phone book.

I would add that he showed up at a popular local bar most days at 6 p.m. People walked past without any idea, or interest, that they were in the presence of the 20th century Mark Twain.

Portis probably thought reclusiveness pretentious. Who is so self-important that he must never be seen? He was shy. He genuinely was about the work. And he was a quiet observer by nature and trade, much like the young man in a story I think Portis told from his New York days.

My memory won't let me vouch for the source of the story. I just remember hearing it and loving it.

It was that a bunch of young writers and such, including Portis and Nora Ephron, gathered for drinks many afternoons in New York in the early '60s. It was that there was a quiet young fellow who joined them but never to speak, except occasionally to ask one or the other to repeat what he'd just said.

The young man was studying dialect and accent and mannerism and idiom. He was Robert Duvall.

Imagine that drinking crew. One quiet young man would go on to create Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn. Another would go on to bring Augustus McRae to life.

Both created much by saying a little and listening a lot. Now that I think about it, my heroes were Charles Portis and Robert Duvall.

One day in 1991, when I was doing a stint as editor of the Arkansas Times as a monthly magazine, I picked up the phone to hear Portis propose that he give me for my publishing consideration a piece he'd written. He said it was about the Ouachita River, its history and his pickup-truck journey from its source to its end, through his homeland of South Arkansas.

What he gave me was the most remarkable blend of contemporary observational detail and rich history that I'd ever beheld. Its sentences were bare but vivid. Its humor was frequent and subtle.

My "editing" entailed taking his calls and occasionally welcoming his unannounced visits to the office, always, it was clear, so that he could assure himself that I hadn't changed anything in the text. I hadn't and wouldn't dare.

As publication neared, Portis called to say he hoped I wasn't making a big promotional to-do of his contribution. I assured him that of course I wasn't. I remember giving him that assurance as I looked at a cover layout with "Charles Portis discovers the Ouachita" flashed across the top.

Portis had written something he wanted published and he'd given it to me in a spirit of generosity but also from practicality and convenience. It was an Arkansas piece, mainly, and there wasn't another magazine in the state with which to share it.

But he didn't quite trust my silly youthfulness.

That cover banner--"Charles Portis discovers the Ouachita"--violated his central principle, I suspect, in that the subject of the sentence is not the work, but the writer.

But I defend it. I wanted the sophisticated newsstand grazer to see that the Arkansas Times had a piece by the nation's best writer.

As for the work itself, it won a national award, of course.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jb[email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 02/20/2020