- You put things off and then one morning you wake up and say — today I will change the oil in my truck.
- — Charles Portis, "Gringos"
Newspaper writing teaches humility. "It ain't art, and you ain't Hemingway," more than one city editor has growled at a straining-to-rise cub. A newspaper is a factory; it employs mechanics and craftspeople, but whatever art its employees produce is produced on their own time.
But what if you are Hemingway? Or something close? Something close enough to get treatment from the literary establishment, to be collected in omnibus editions and anthologies? To have your books outlive you, to have your name serve as a password among a dwindling but hungry class of strong readers?
The Library of America's latest volume is "Charles Portis: Collected Works." It will be in bookstores April 4. There won't be a parade, but perhaps there should be.
Portis and his fellow Arkansan Donald Harington might vie for the left-handed honor of being the least well-known great American writer, and while the superlative seems silly — none of us has ever heard of the genuine title holder — it is a handy way to begin a discussion of his work.
The LOA edition, edited by Little Rock writer and editor Jay Jennings, contains all five of Portis' published novels — "Norwood," "True Grit," "The Dog of the South," "Masters of Atlantis" and "Gringos" — along with a healthy selection of his stories and journalism. (The volume ought to be supplemented by "Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany," the 2012 collection of Portis' nonfiction, shorts stories, the play "Delray's New Moon," and Roy Reed's invaluable interview with Portis for the oral history of the Arkansas Gazette.)
Jennings was Portis' friend; like a lot of people around these parts, he knew "Buddy" Portis well. I never did, though I had his telephone number and was occasionally within 15 feet of him in lunchrooms and beer joints. I never worked up the nerve to introduce myself and tell him how much I enjoyed "Dog of the South." I didn't want to bother him. Maybe I was afraid he wouldn't know who I was. Or maybe I was afraid that he would.
In any case, people say Portis was reclusive, but I'm not sure that's accurate. Maybe he was more humble, more self-aware than most people who have their books made into movies starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. He saw through a lot of the stuff that dazzles us, and was content to do his work and make his way.
Everybody knows about "True Grit," though in the popular imagination it's a Hollywood concoction in which the Rockies dwarf Dardanelle. Or else it's the Coen Brothers version where you keep waiting for the smirk that never comes.
It is a great American novel, an inversion of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," in which Mattie Ross is a civilizer, a law reader, an organizing principal — as much a symbol of imposed order as a piano in a homestead parlor. An unforgiving moralist, an Old Testament raver like John Brown, an imperial tamer of chaos who's perpetually suspicious of others' motives, she lights out for the wilderness not for the freedom it promises, but to extend her Scots Presbyterian notions of justice.
While Huck left to escape the civilizing influence of Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly, Mattie is Aunt Polly, eager to impose her sensibilities on the savages and outlaws rambling through the Choctaw Nation. She is not at all excited by the possibilities promised by the frontier. She means to see the heathens hanged.
She will make common cause with Rooster Cogburn (a historical character Portis augmented), and later the self-regarding Texas Ranger LaBoeuf in order to accomplish her punitive goals, but she's reluctant to admit these rough men as equals.
A FASCINATING CHARACTER
Mattie is a fascinating character, severe and unforgiving, the antithesis of the archetypal freewheeling American youth as embodied by Huck or Holden Caulfield. "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains," she intones when Cogburn offers her a sip of whiskey as medicine.
Mattie is a cranky old maid, but we can love her for the humanity that leaks through her Scotch-guarded facade — her affection for her game pony Little Blackie; her affecting (and affected) rhetorical habits, which include the seemingly random use of "quotation marks" to preserve the authenticity of the story she is telling us. Mattie's dryly musical voice is a miracle of vernacular precision and authorial intent — she reveals only and exactly what is necessary.
One key to the book is that the narrator is 64-year-old Mattie, looking back on her long-ago adventure in which she lost her arm. Mattie never married and spent her life keeping accounts. But for that one episode, she has lived a gray and lonely life. She never sought out Cogburn or LaBoeuf again, although she talks of finding them. And we realize the formal, contraction-less language of the characters is the ventriloquism of an old and brittle pendant.
A key to that voice might be found in Portis' history. After a stint in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, he enrolled in the University of Arkansas and worked for Fayetteville's Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his duties was editing the correspondence columns written by little old Mattie-type ladies who lived in the hinterlands. He confessed he edited all the character out of their copy; he saved it up for Mattie.
'THE DOG OF THE SOUTH'
Had Portis only written "True Grit," his place would be assured.
But I'm not sure it's his best book, and it's certainly not my favorite. "The Dog of the South" was published in 1979, 11 years after "True Grit," and is almost reflexively described as a comic tale about 26-year-old Ray Midge whose wife, Norma, runs off to Mexico with Guy Dupree, one of Midge's former colleagues on the Arkansas Gazette copy desk. The couple fled in Ray's Ford Torino, leaving behind Dupree's 1963 Buick Special.
Ray, mainly looking to retrieve his car, packs up a Colt Cobra revolver and sets off after them.
Through credit card receipts, he is able to track them to San Miguel de Allende. He stops for the evening at a Mexican hotel and discovers Norma and Dupree had been there three weeks before. In no hurry to resume his quest, Ray noses around town. Thinking he might find the fugitives in a trailer park, he visits one where he sees a broken-down school bus with the legend "The Dog of the South" crudely painted on it.
He returns to his hotel and has a pleasant lunch, before striking out on foot to look for the Torino. He meets characters, including a hippie couple from Little Rock. Later he's accosted by the owner of the bus, Dr. Reo Symes, who is trying to make his way to Belize to see his mother who owns an island in the Mississippi River that Reo wants to develop. Ray agrees to drive him.
As Ray goes up the stairs to his room for the night, he's followed by a white cat that lives in the hotel. Ray feeds him a hot dog, but doesn't let the cat in his room.
When he sets out the next morning, he cranks the key in Guy's car and hears a "terrible metallic clatter."
Well, I said to myself, the little Buick is done.
I got out and opened the hood. There was the white cat, decapitated by the fan blades. I couldn't believe it. He had crawled up into the engine compartment of this car, not another car, and there was my bloody handiwork. I couldn't handle anything. I couldn't even manage the minor decencies of life.
That's not the saddest passage in "The Dog of the South." Eventually Ray catches up with Dupree and Norma and convinces his wife to come home to Little Rock with him.
The book ends this way:
Norma regained her health and we got on better then ever before. We went to football games and parties. We had a fine Christmas. We went to the Cancer Ball with Mrs. Edge and one of her florid escorts and I even danced a little, which isn't to say I became overheated. In January I got my B.A. degree and I decided to stay in school and try engineering again, with an eye toward graduate work in geology and eventual entry into the very exciting and challenging field of plate tectonics.
Then, in April, Norma became restless again. She went to Memphis to visit a friend named Marge. "Goodbye, goodbye," she said to me, and the next thing I knew she had her own apartment over there, and a job doing something at a television station. She said she might come back but she didn't do it and I let her go that time. It's only about 130 miles to Memphis, but I didn't go after her again.
"The Dog of the South" is the story of a man who only dimly wants the sort of things human beings are supposed to want out of life. While in some ways he's as relentless as Mattie, his quest is half-hearted — he knows he wants the Torino (which, spoiler alert, he doesn't get) but he's not so sure about his faithless wife. He's driven more by principle — Dupree shouldn't be able to just take anything he wants — than any genuine sense of loss.
Similarly, Lamar Jimmerson, the unquestioning acolyte of 1985's "Masters of Atlantis," despite having no real ambition, finds himself the leader of a cult known as the Gnomon Society, a kinder, gentler Scientology (or QAnon).
In his first novel, "Norwood" (which also became a movie starring Glen Campbell, Kim Darby and Joe Namath), a would-be country singer from Texas sets off on a road trip to collect a debt and finds himself involved with a Chaucerian roster of characters, including an educated chicken and a retired circus midget.
In Portis' last novel, 1991's "Gringos," the protagonist is Jimmy Burns, a middle-aged American expatriate making a living doing odd jobs in Mexico.
Burns feels like an older, tougher and wiser Ray Midge. Listen as he swears off his lucrative career as a looter of antiquities, as a grave robber:
I said I probably wouldn't be venturing out much anymore, into the selva. He opened the car door, and a pomegranate rolled out. Neither of us made a move to pick it up. A sour and messy fruit. Somebody gives you one and you haul it around until it turns black or rolls away out of your life.
That's how things end. With nothing so dramatic as a whimper. Burns has a moment of self-recognition — he was capable enough, but never pulled it together. He could have been a contender. Nothing special about that.
A CLEAN STYLE
Portis' prose is clean and uncluttered, with a style both economical and evocative. While you might criticize "Gringos" (or any of Portis' books save "True Grit") for their episodic nature, a large part of the pleasure of reading Portis derives from his eye for significant detail and his ear for dialogue. (Both "True Grit" movies used Portis' dialogue nearly verbatim.)
While his books are relatively short and the stories they tell (again, excepting "True Grit") less than epic, he has a knack for finding points of emotional inflection (as with the white cat, which always makes me tear up) and establishing his protagonists — often more observers than actors — as empathetic and credibly motivated. We understand why they do the things they do, even when the world they're operating in is absurd.
One way to understand Portis' approach to storytelling is to compare it to Hollywood B-movies, produced quickly and efficiently to fill out double bills at the cinema. Like these films, Portis' novels are focused on telling a good story, with little concern for grand themes or elaborate metaphors. Instead, they are content to provide an entertaining and engrossing narrative that keeps the reader turning the page.
Which isn't to say Portis' work is lightweight, devoid of meaning or significance. But his approach to storytelling is grounded in a belief that the best stories are those that are well told, that engage the reader's imagination and emotions, and that linger and haunt.
It's self-serving to write that Portis writes like a journalist; he doesn't. But there are and have been journalists who write like Portis; they are content to tell small, focused stories designed to deliver information in engaging and even entertaining ways. Portis is accessible but not superficial. Every word has its reason for existing on the page.
It's like when Hemingway (who you definitely are not) said that a reader could sense a writer's knowledge and grasp of a subject even when they chose not to put that knowledge on display. It's simply there, like the bulk of the iceberg resting below the surface. You could sniff out a faker — the genuinely pretentious.
Portis started out a newspaper man. It was inside work.
"I got out of the Marines in May of 1955 and went back to Hamburg," Portis told Roy Reed. "A friend of mine there, Billy Rodgers, had just gotten out of the Air Force, and he had a car. So we drove up to Fayetteville and enrolled for the summer semester at the university ... You had to choose a major, so I put down journalism. I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college — not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service."
Portis was a good — maybe a great — newspaperman, but maybe, like Jimmy Burns, he sensed it was time to push on.
"I do not fool around with newspapers," Mattie Ross says in "True Grit." "The paper editors are great ones for reaping where they have not sown."
I never met Charles Portis. But I have read his mind.
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