About Charles Portis: Author of “True Grit” and Other Novels

From a Wall Street Journal review by Katherine A. Powers of the book by Charles Portis titled “Charles Portis: Collected Works”:

Charles Portis (1933-2020), author of five novels and some occasional pieces, is best known, if known at all, as the author of “True Grit” (1968), his second novel and the basis for two successful movies. Over the decades he has gained devotees of almost evangelical fervor, but except for “True Grit,” his books never entered the mainstream—and even that one was out of print for years. Though not a recluse, Portis did shun interviews, presenting the sort of mystery that surrounds many of his own characters. His brief memoir, “Combinations of Jacksons” (1999)—its title misquoting Lincoln’s “Proclamation on State Militia” with an inside joke—never gets out of his boyhood, though it does present portraits of his forebears, including his maternal grandfather and paternal great-grandfather, both of whom fought for the Confederacy.

Born and raised in southern Arkansas, Portis was very much a man of the South himself, notably in his acerbic view of Northerners and their idea of the region. In the Yankee mind, as expressed by one of the characters in “Masters of Atlantis” (1985), “Dixie” was populated by rough, unsavory customers, “eating their yams and pralines and playing their fiddles and dancing their jigs and guffawing over coarse jokes and beating one another to death with agricultural implements.” In the memoir Portis advances his own theory, that the “postbellum movement into the South of all the pale cranks in the Midwest, similar to one of those sudden squirrel migrations in the woods, has been overlooked, I think, as a source of some of the weirdness to be met with in our region.”

After finishing high school Portis apprenticed as an auto mechanic and sold auto parts—thus the prevalence of cars in his work, among them “a rat-colored 1952 half-ton Studebaker pickup,” the hero of his essay “An Auto Odyssey Through Darkest Baja.” Portis joined the Marines during the Korean War, and after his discharge in 1955 he went to college and took up journalism. He wrote for Southern newspapers and, later, the New York Herald Tribune, where eventually he covered the civil-rights movement across the South. In 1963, he became the paper’s London bureau chief, but quit the next year, moved back to Arkansas, disappeared into a rented cabin, and emerged with “Norwood” (1966), his first novel. Now the five novels, the memoir, and some short stories, essays and newspaper articles have been gathered together in one tidy volume edited by Jay Jennings, and installed where they belong, in the pantheon of American letters, the Library of America.

Portis’s genius lies in his vision of America as reflected in speech. In “Norwood,” “The Dog of the South” (1979) and “Masters of Atlantis,” it’s the language of entrepreneurial optimism as it slues into bathos, a confection of gravity, gullibility, self-involvement and salesmanship. This America is a wide-open country where the automobile roams and snappy slogans are hatched every day. “True Grit,” on the other hand, presents a raw, elemental 19th-century Arkansas and Indian Territory, where 14-year-old Mattie Ross is hot to bring her father’s killer to justice. In her righteous, Bible-infused way of speaking, she’s as American as Prohibition and capital punishment. In Portis’s hands, this makes her inadvertently funny when up against the failings of the men she has recruited, Rooster Cogburn’s dissipation and Ranger LaBoeuf’s vanity. “Gringos” (1991), Portis’s last novel, less festive than the others, is set in Central America and peopled by congregations of archaeologists, opportunists, seekers and thugs down from the States pursuing their professional, commercial, spiritual and brutish callings.

All five novels are road novels and pay close attention to their characters’ personal foibles—which are far more important than plot. In “Norwood” we have Norwood Pratt, auto mechanic and aspiring country-and-western singer, who lives in Ralph, Texas, with his sister, Vernell (“a heavy, sleepy girl with bad posture”). She is married to Bill Bird, a Northern know-it-all and slob who keeps a duffel bag in the bathroom “filled with supplementary treats for his own exclusive use.” Driven nuts by Bill, Norwood heads off to New York City to collect $70 he lent a friend. The book is wonderfully funny and a joy, but Portis uses big stitches compared to the fine comic embroidery of “The Dog of the South” and “Masters of Atlantis.”

At the center of “The Dog of the South” is Ray Midge, a tireless, not to say tedious, student of Civil War battles, whose wife, Norma, has left him for Guy Dupree. The pair drove off in Midge’s Ford Torino leaving Dupree’s Buick Special “standing astride a red puddle of transmission fluid.” Midge tracks them down through Mexico to Belize, along the way picking up Dr. Symes, a man with a checkered past and a lot of big ideas, including setting up “Jefferson Davis Land”—where he’d play Davis and “every afternoon at three Lee would take off his gray coat and wrestle an alligator in a mud hole.”

Like many of Portis’s characters, Symes lives in his own world of blather, carrying on conversations on his own terms—as when Midge admits that he’s never been in the military:

“Did you have asthma?”


“What are you taking for it?”

“I don’t have asthma.”

“Have you tried the Chihuahua dogs in your bedroom at night? They say it works. I’m an orthodox physician but I’m also for whatever works. You might try it anyway.”

“I have never had asthma.”

“The slacker’s friend. That’s what they called it during the war. I certified many a one at a hundred and fifty bucks a throw.”

“Masters of Atlantis” is Portis’s supreme triumph, a brilliantly comic tour de force. It is the story of Lamar Jimmerson, a decorous, rather dozy man who is also First Master of the New Cycle of the Gnomon Society, a secret brotherhood devoted to preserving the ancient wisdom of Atlantis. This has been recorded in the Codex Pappus, which, along with a conical goatskin cap, Jimmerson acquired as a young soldier from a wandering grifter in Europe after World War I. Lamar and his adepts establish a temple in Indiana with satellites or “pillars” elsewhere. But there is trouble: a usurper, a schism, a renegade sect, defections and decline, all culminating in a “historic flight south” to Texas and a new temple (a mobile home), and a hearing before a Texas Senate committee. It is almost impossible to describe this extraordinary novel without making it sound tiresomely wacky, but its humor is controlled and deadpan, and the most dramatic developments have a hominess that cuts everything down to size.

The greatness of Portis’s novels lies in speech—the austere locutions of “True Grit,” the sales jabber from various 20th-century parties, the off-kilter dialogue between solipsistic individuals, and great riffs of talk from characters in the grip of some idée fixe. The comedy is ineffable, inextricable from its context, the ready-for-anything American mindscape. As P.G. Wodehouse is to England and Flann O’Brien to Ireland, so Charles Portis is to America: a writer whose comedy strikes a celestial chord and whose characters, to quote Evelyn Waugh on Wodehouse, “live in their own universe like the characters of a fairy story.”

Katherine A. Powers is the recipient of a Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

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