Charles Portis: “His humor relied on deadpan humor, oddball characters and occasional bursts of melodrama.”

From a New York Times obit, by the late Roy Reed, of author Charles Portis:

Charles Portis, the publicity-shy author of “True Grit” and a short list of other novels that drew a cult following and accolades as the work of possibly the nation’s best unknown writer, died on Monday at a Little Rock, Ark., hospice. He was 86. . . .

Mr. Portis was in his early 30s and well established as a reporter at The New York Herald Tribune in 1964, when he decided to turn to fiction full time. The decision astonished his friends and colleagues at the paper, among them Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and Nora Ephron.

He had covered the civil rights movement in the South: riots in Birmingham, Ala.; the jailing of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany, Ga.; Gov. George C. Wallace’s attempt to stop the desegregation of the University of Alabama. And he had been assigned to a coveted post, London bureau chief. His future in journalism was bright.

But he said he was heading home; he was going to move into an Arkansas fishing shack and write novels. . . .

Within two years Mr. Portis had published his first novel, “Norwood.” It told the story of Norwood Pratt, a naïve ex-Marine from East Texas on a road trip to collect a $70 debt. Along the way he encounters, among other things, a con artist and a chicken that can play tick-tack-toe. “Norwood” set the pattern for Mr. Portis’s use of misfits, cranks and sly humor in his fiction. . . .

Like “Norwood,” “True Grit” was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. And like “Norwood,” it was turned into a movie, twice—in 1969, with John Wayne in the Cogburn role (for which he received an Academy Award), and in 2010, starring Jeff Bridges and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. (“Norwood” became a movie in 1970 starring Mr. Portis’s fellow Arkansan Glen Campbell.)

The narrative voice of “True Grit” is that of a self-assured old woman, Mattie Ross, as she recalls an adventure she had in Arkansas’s Indian Territory when she was 14, on a quest to track down her father’s killer with Cogburn’s help.

Mr. Portis wanted her to sound determined to “get the story right,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2012. The book has virtually no contractions, and the language is insistently old-fashioned. . . .

Between 1979 and 1991, Mr. Portis published three more novels, “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). Like his first two, they relied on deadpan humor, oddball characters and occasional bursts of melodrama. . . .

Mr. Portis’s reluctance to talk to the news media may have been traceable to his days as a reporter, when intruding on people’s lives was part of the job description. Mattie, his narrator in “True Grit,” may be voicing Mr. Portis’s own feelings when she speaks of the reporters who had sought her out to tell them her story of Rooster Cogburn.

“I do not fool around with newspapers,” Mattie says. “The paper editors are great ones for reaping where they have not sown. Another game they have is to send reporters out to talk to you and get your stories free. I know the young reporters are not paid well and I would not mind helping those boys out with their ‘scoops’ if they could ever get anything right.”
Also see “The Literary Genius of Charles Portis,” by Alex Heard, in the New Republic of October 8, 2012. From the story:

Portis enrolled at the University of Arkansas after he got out of the Marines in 1955 and started working in 1958, soon after graduation. Colleagues remember him as a lively social presence, a man who “loved to stand at a bar telling good stories and listening to them.” He once broke the arm of a loudmouth from The New York Times who had challenged him to arm-wrestle at Greenwich Village bar. “It was a just a freakish thing,” he insisted. “A weak bone or something.”. . .

Not surprisingly, Portis-the-man sounds a lot like Portis-the-writer: concise, quirky, funny. Here he is on the forlorn spirit of modern newspaper offices: “[T]hey’re pretty sad places. Quiet, lifeless. No big Underwood typewriters clacking away. No milling about, no chatting, no laughing, no smoking. That old loose, collegial air is long gone from the newsrooms.”
The Washington Post’s obit, by Harrison Smith, adds this:

Mr. Portis graduated from high school in nearby Hamburg, not far from the Louisiana border. Against his parents’ wishes, he enlisted in the Marines and fought in Korea, where he began reading “book after book,” according to his brother Jonathan.

He eventually mustered out a sergeant and enrolled at the University of Arkansas with vague plans to focus on writing. “You had to choose a major, so I put down journalism,” Mr. Portis later said. “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.”

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