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What Charles Portis Taught Us


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What Charles Portis Taught Us


Charles Portis died on Monday, at the age of eighty-six. He left us with five impeccable novels and the question of how properly to mourn a writer whose work handled life’s tragic and rhapsodic moments with a shrug of quiet amusement.

It’s been said that fans of Portis constitute a cult, which I think is true insofar as we generally maintain at least one core ritual. When we come across a fellow-member, we recite our favorite moments from Portis until people make us stop. Here are some of mine:

1. From “The Dog of the South”: When Ray Midge brags to the quack doctor Reo Symes that he, Midge, owns “sixty-six lineal feet of books,” Symes tells him to “throw that trash out the window” and read nothing but the motivational author John Selmer Dix, who is, Symes claims, “the greatest writer who ever lived.”

“They say Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived.”

“Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse.”

2. From “Gringos”: A junk trader, Jimmy Burns, has just fired a shotgun at a murderous hippie named Dan: “There were two sheets of flame and his headband and the top of his head went away. . . . Shotgun blast or not at close range, I was still surprised at how fast and clean Dan had gone down. It was like dropping a Cape buffalo in his tracks at one go. I wasn’t used to seeing my will so little resisted, having been in sales for so long.”

3. From “True Grit,” the book’s final lines from the narrator, Mattie Ross: “Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.”

The careful, wooden music of this last line—especially the omission of a “the” before “snow”—is what, for me, elevates Portis from a comic writer to a practical philosopher at least of equal magnitude to J. S. Dix. Not the snow, just snow. The snow—the heroic iamb—is the epic material of trial and catharsis that people shouldn’t hope for in real life. Snow is the unpoetical actual of what you’ve got and had better get used to. Don’t live in too grand a key is the message of plain old snow. It is what it is. On some days, you will avenge your father’s murder. On others, you will accept a lowball offer for a load of salvaged irrigation pipe.

When “True Grit,” published in 1968, was turned into a movie starring John Wayne and became a best-seller, a low-amplitude course through the world became something Portis had to work at. He spent much of his career dodging the press and literary society. This earned him, unfairly, a reputation as a recluse, though he was reportedly an approachable presence at the Little Rock, Arkansas, beer joints he frequented. Before the release of the Coen brothers’ adaptation of “True Grit,” in 2010, he amiably consented to talk with a Times Magazine writer who had pursued him to Little Rock, on the condition that the writer not actually quote him for the piece. Portis’s aversion to publicity perhaps explains why he never found a wider readership, and why all of his books but “True Grit” were for a time out of print, until the Overlook Press began reprinting his novels, in 1999. Nevertheless, I do not imagine that Portis witnessed much in our age to make him regret withholding his private life from the scrutiny of strangers.

He had, of course, witnessed many other ages. Born in 1933, Portis grew up in several small Arkansas towns—El Dorado, Hamburg, and Norphlet, where his father was a school superintendent. His scant writings about his childhood are short on Proustian yearning and long on wry literalness. He confessed in The Atlantic to boyhood chagrins, such as the futility of trying, in the local swamps, to replicate “Tarzan’s aerial glide across the jungle, leaping from one opportune vine to the next,” only to learn that “when you jumped from a swinging vine to one that was hanging dead still and vertical, you weren’t going any farther, and could only be left looking foolish, dangling there at rest.”

In his teen years, Portis worked as an apprentice mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership, fostering the automotive preoccupations that come as close as anything to a unifying subtheme in Portis’s non-“True Grit” books. After high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in the Korean War. Upon his return, Portis became a newspaper reporter, ultimately landing at the Herald Tribune, where he served in the Manhattan and London offices. At the Tribune, Portis worked alongside Lewis Lapham and also Tom Wolfe, who was baffled when, in 1964, Portis moved back to Arkansas to write fiction full time. But, in the words of Ray Midge, the narrator of “The Dog of the South,” the author’s return fit a familiar local pattern: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”

In Portis’s case, it’s unclear whether it was the Midgean traction of his native soil that kept him there or some understanding that he could not have built his fiction’s singular and droll terraria nearer to the emanating rays of East Coast fiction in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Portis’s diffident, modestly gallant characters were a world away from the marital bonfires and priapisms of other male writers of his crop—Roth, Updike, Yates. His male heroes practiced a masculinity that by the standards of the day was uniquely (and unfashionably) nontoxic. It’s hard to imagine the bafflement with which Portnoy or Angstrom would have confronted a guy like Jimmy Burns, from “Gringos,” who tries to persuade two young women to move into his hotel with a come-on like this: “The doorknobs are porcelain with many fine hairline cracks. The towels are rough-dried in the sun. Very stiff and invigorating after a bath.”

“Only a mean person won’t enjoy it” is something a critic once wrote about “True Grit.” In part, I love Portis because I feel less mean when I read him. It’s not just that his novels are gentle and funny; it’s that Portis’s books have a way of conscripting the reader into their governing virtues—punctuality, automotive maintenance, straight talk, emotional continence. Puny virtues, as Portis himself once put it, yet it is a great and comforting gift (in these days especially) to offer readers escape into a place where such virtues reign.

It’s hard to know whether Portis’s work ushered much comfort into his own life. My sense is that he was lonely. I imagine he had a fair bit in common with Jimmy Burns, described in “Gringos” as a “hard worker,” “solitary as a snake,” and, yes, “punctual.” Portis never married and had no children. He never published another novel after “Gringos,” from 1991. The closest he gets to self-portraiture comes in his short memoir “Combinations of Jacksons,” the essay published in The Atlantic. Toward the essay’s close, the author spots an “apparition” of his future self in the form of a geezer idling his station wagon alongside Portis at a traffic light in Little Rock. He wore “the gloat of a miser,” Portis writes. “Stiff gray hairs straggled out of the little relief hole at the back of his cap. . . . While not an ornament of our race, neither was he, I thought, the most depraved member of the gang.”

In his vision of himself at the wheel of the phantom station wagon, Portis goes on to write what feel like fitting instructions for how we ought to cope with this great and overlooked writer’s exit from the scene: “I could see myself all too clearly in that old butterscotch Pontiac, roaring flat out across the Mexican desert and laying down a streamer of smoke like a crop duster, with a goatherd to note my passing and (I flatter myself) to watch me until I was utterly gone, over a distant hill, and only then would he turn again with his stick to the straying flock. So be it.”



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