“The Mayas,” wrote Charles Portis in his 1991 novel Gringos,”had a ceremonial year of 260 days called a tzolkin, and then theyhad one of 360 days called a tun, and finally there was the haab of365 days . . . [It] was simply a tun, plus five nameless days of dreadand suspended activity . . . corresponding somewhat to our dead week betweenChristmas and New Year’s Day.”
Should you need an undertaking to liven up that dead week, read Portis’sfive novels, one of which has just been resurrected for the screen by Joel andEthan Coen. True Grit, released on December 22 by Paramount Pictures, isthe second adaptation of Portis’s 1968 novel; the 1969 version earned JohnWayne his only Academy Award (Best Actor) in the role of sozzled, one-eyed U.S.Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn.
True Grit is Portis’s best-known work, which may account for itsbeing least loved by his proprietary, slightly unhinged fans. He has countedsuch greats as Walker Percy, Roald Dahl, and Larry McMurtry among hispartisans, but for sheer grab-you-by-the-collar evangelism, the journalist RonRosenbaum beats all comers. In 1998, Rosenbaum wrote a panegyric on Portis for Esquire,which convinced the Overlook Press to republish his stack of neglectedclassics. For that we are in Rosenbaum’s debt.
But Rosenbaum’s tack involved an apology of sorts for True Grit. Itwasn’t that he thought “there’s anything wrong with it in itself.” Heonly worried that its popularity, or perhaps its association with the Duke,would “throw [readers] off the scent of Portis’s greatness.”
Yes, True Grit would seem to be the squarest of Portis’s books, awestern novel with an accessibly linear plot. It is, in superficial ways, hisleast Portis-like. Its characters are fewer and less grotesque, its comedy farless antic, and its story the least shaggy-dog. How can it hope to compete withtwo deranged, hilarious road novels (1966’s Norwood and 1979’s The Dog of the South), an ingenious parody of secret societies (1985’s Masters ofAtlantis), and a hard-boiled novel about Yucatán archaeology, ufologists,and a bendo expatriate community (Gringos)?
The answer, which I hope will meet with Rosenbaum’s approval, is that there’sno dead horse into which Portis’s talent couldn’t beat new life.
Portis is himself something of an oddity. He is a recluse, and not in anattention-grabbing way; unlike Thomas Pynchon, he has never played himself indisguise on “The Simpsons.” He is a proud Arkansan. (Archibald Yell,the state’s second governor and a hero of the Mexican War, is alluded to in TheDog of the South; Yell County is the home offourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, the stubborn, Bible-quoting heroine of TrueGrit.) He is also an ex-Marine and Korean War vet, and a formernewspaperman. According to John Brummett of the Arkansas News, whoclaims to “have had the privilege of inhabiting a bar stool next to his atime or two,” Portis’s approach to literature is simple: “[Y]ou gottahave a story.”
True Grit has a story so simple that it would read like a folktalewere it not for the unmistakable voice of Mattie Ross. “People do not giveit credence,” relates the spinster Ross, looking back, “that afourteen year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avengeher father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say itdid not happen every day.”
Mattie’s father had been killed by one of his tenant farmers, a “cowardgoing by the name of Tom Chaney,” for intervening in a fight. Chaney fledto the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma,beyond the interest of the law, and joined the gang of outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper.So Mattie traveled to the scene of the crime, a boarding house in Fort Smith, and set abouthiring a man with “true grit”—the aforementioned Rooster Cogburn—asher instrument of terrestrial vengeance. “The wicked flee when nonepursueth,” her older self explains, by way of Proverbs.
Much of True Grit‘s humor comes from the severity, the biblicalhumorlessness, of its elderly narrator and her younger self, each ananachronism in her own or any time. There is no man she won’t face down. Inkeeping with the book’s amusing strain of Arkansan chauvinism, she repliesicily to a threat from the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, her second sidekick-to-be: “Puta hand to me and you will answer for it. You are from Texasand ignorant of our ways but the good people of Arkansas do not go easy on men who abusewomen and children.” Mattie’s steely manner sends him “clanking awayin all his Texastrappings.”
Those for whom the “western” aspect of True Grit is mostimportant will be awed by Rooster, who is both larger than life and lower thandirt. Unlike those two Hollywood dandies JohnWayne and Jeff Bridges, Portis’s Rooster doesn’t wear an eyepatch (“a littlecrescent of white showed at the bottom” of his dead eye). By the hangingjudge Isaac Parker’s records, Rooster kills roughly six men a year as a U.S.Marshal. But he is also an overweight drunk who dwells in the back of a Chinesegrocery store with a cat named General Sterling Price. He doesn’t cotton toremarks about his disability:
MR. COGBURN: I had to shoot him in self-defense last April in the GoingSnake Disrict of the Cherokee Nation.
MR. GOUDY: How did that come about?
MR. COGBURN: I was trying to serve a warrant on him for selling ardentspirits to the Cherokees. It was not the first one. He come at me with akingbolt and said, “Rooster, I am going to punch that other eye out.”I defended myself.
It fares no better for the fellow who calls him a “one-eyed fat man.”
It would have been easy to get laughs from the absurdity of a headstronggirl bending a U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger to her will. Portis managessomething more difficult, which is persuading the reader to accept a world inwhich this is both absurd and, maybe just this once, believable. When Mattiesays of her father that he was “the gentlest, most honorable man who everlived,” she is also wondering at the fact that she “did not get [her]mean streak from him.” From where, then—and whence her grit? Is courageborn or made, felt or performed?
If the Coen Brothers have been faithful in their adaptation, it will be thesecond movie this season to end with a crevasse and an amputated arm. There arefew coincidences in Hollywood,but one wishes it were something in the ether, some impulse to rediscover thefrontier pluck of our forebears. Of course, were it an impulse to rediscoverCharles Portis, we’d be headed in the right direction. He’s no mere “cultwriter.” Like the finest comic writers, his understanding that most thingsare ridiculous lends a special gravity to the things he knows are not. Thistime, he won’t be forgotten.