Charles Portis, Collected Works (Library of America), 1,105 pp. Hardback, $45.00.
Charles Portis was known to family and friends as “Buddy.” That tells you a lot right there. It’s hard to imagine a prominent novelist today, someone like Jonathan Franzen or Ben Lerner, unironically going by “Buddy.”
And it’s not hard to imagine, when you read through the five novels and dozen short pieces in his Collected Works, that Portis was a Buddy. Except for the quality of his prose, nothing about him says “elite.” “Nobody ever leaves strips of crisp bacon lying around, nobody I know,” says Jimmy Burns, the narrator of his final novel, Gringos (1991).
Born and raised in Arkansas, after a few brief sojourns—to Korea, to New York, to London—Portis returned to his home state to embark on his career as a novelist and largely remained there until he died in 2020. (“Everybody else went back home and stayed there,” he wrote of fellow Korean War veterans. “They left home just that one time.”) The only “establishment” to which he claimed membership was the local bar down the street from his apartment.
That’s not to say that Portis was unknown. His most popular novel, True Grit (1968), was twice adapted to film (in 1969 and in 2010—with John Wayne and Jeff Bridges, respectively, in the role of Rooster Cogburn) and has retained a stable and steady fan base. But Portis avoided publicity, generally declining interviews and photographs, and never held institutional positions of prominence.
In 1998, an Esquire magazine article on Portis, by Ron Rosenbaum, revived interest in the author’s five novels—Norwood (1966), True Grit, The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos—and these (as well as a miscellany of his short works) were subsequently reprinted as paperbacks by the Overlook Press.
So nothing in the new Library of America edition of Portis’s Collected Works was out of print. And yet this thousand-page book, edited by Jay Jennings, is an invaluable product. Portis’s fiction is simply fantastic. Every page in this volume is worth your time. Plus, Jennings’s 10-page “Chronology” offers the most complete timeline of Portis’s life and career ever published. In the absence of a biography, it’s an extremely useful document for the reader curious to know more about the author.
We learn, for instance, that Portis, born in 1933, served as “an apprentice mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership” when he was in high school and then, after graduation, went to work as an auto parts salesman. The language of automobile repair is such a powerful constant throughout his fiction that he must have soaked up a great deal in this brief apprenticeship.
We also learn that, while he was working as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, he dated Nora Ephron. The relationship didn’t last long (though the split was amicable), and Portis made the bold choice, at the age of 31, to quit the newspaper business, return to Arkansas, and sit in a rented fishing cabin writing a novel. This was Norwood, his debut, a short novel about a young man driving a stolen car from Texas to New York City and then returning via bus, picking up a new girlfriend along the way.
Not much happens in this book, but the language is amazing. At one point, a girl complains about her sister: “She gets to where she sulls up and won’t talk and slams doors. It’s pure d. meanness is what is it. She needs somebody to just slap the snot out of her.” Here is a perfect prose sandwich. The first and third sentences are concise expressions of explosive sibilance: sulls/slams/slap/snot. And the second sentence captures the charm of a regional dialect.
While writing Norwood, Portis also wrote an essay on the “Nashville Sound” for the Saturday Evening Post. This account of the contemporary country music scene, one of the gems of the Library of America volume, features a look at singer-songwriter Roger Miller, best known for his hit 1965 tune “King of the Road.” There’s clearly an affinity between Portis and Miller, who was regarded as a brilliant lyricist but whose songs often contained odd mixtures of humor and improvisation that made them hard to categorize.
The same could be said of Portis, whose next novel, True Grit, was a humorous historical western revenge tale, set in 1873 and narrated by a crochety old woman in 1928. Mattie Ross is a phenomenal character, one who has never received justice on the silver screen. The key to Mattie is the fact that she is an elderly, tight-fisted landlady who writes, just before the stock market crash, about the righteous vengeance she enacted as a teenager in the Oklahoma Territory shortly after the Civil War. The films make her out to be plucky and spunky, but on the page Mattie is tenacious and relentless—a precursor to Katniss Everdeen. As Donna Tartt (a True Grit aficionado who recorded the six-hour unabridged audiobook version of the novel in 2006) put it, Mattie “is less Huck Finn’s little sister than Captain Ahab’s.”
Mattie needs to see her father’s killer die (“I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!”), so she pays for the services of the meanest U.S. marshal she can find, Rooster Cogburn, “an old one-eyed jasper that was built along the lines of Grover Cleveland.” The novel succeeds not because it features a cute kid but because Mattie’s language is irresistible. A learned and devout Christian, she speaks in “catechism cadences,” notes Ed Park; she has no doubts that she acts justly in a world of foolish men.
Portis quickly acquired a reputation as a meticulous writer. His editor at Simon and Schuster, the legendary Robert Gottlieb, has praised Portis’s “pitch-perfect voice” and noted that he barely had to touch his prose at all. Of True Grit, Gottlieb remarks, “If we did any editorial work on it I can’t imagine what it could have been.”
The June 1969 movie premiere of True Grit brought a great amount of attention to Portis, and Jennings notes that his agent, Lynn Nesbit, begged him to capitalize on this publicity by publishing another novel. But Portis waited a decade to do so. The 1970s take up a single page in Jennings’s Chronology and remain somewhat mysterious. Portis worked on the screenplays for two sequels for True Grit (only one of which was produced) and otherwise laid low in Arkansas.
But he never lost a step. His next novel, The Dog of the South, is an absolute masterpiece, the high-water mark of his career. The fastidious 26-year-old narrator-protagonist, Ray Midge, drives from Little Rock to Belize in pursuit of his wife, who has run off with a former lover, Guy Dupree. In Mexico, Ray teams up with Dr. Reo Symes, who also wants to get down to Belize to acquire the deed for a parcel of land from his elderly missionary mother. This gonzo road trip becomes a farcical buddy comedy that dispenses great gobs of blended wisdom and bullshit.
Ray, for example, when ordering a beer, “drank from the side of the mug that a left-handed person would use, in the belief that fewer mouths had been on that side.” He later becomes frustrated when filling out a form: “The name and address spaces were much too short, unless you wrote a very fine hand or unless your name was Ed Poe and you lived at 1 Elm St., and I had to put this information on the back.”
Dr. Symes, meanwhile, tells Ray about a friend who “had an interest in a denture factory in Tijuana and he was trying to get a U.S. patent on their El Tigre model. They were wonderful teeth. They had two extra canines and two extra incisors of tungsten steel. Slap a set of those Tiger plates in your mouth and you can throw your oatmeal out the window. You could shred an elk steak with those boogers.”
Passages like these have delighted famous readers such as Bob Odenkirk, who lists The Dog of the South as one of his favorite books of all time. Bill Hader likes the novel so much that he obtained the film rights to it, but it’s hard to imagine a movie adaptation that accurately reflects the text’s brilliance.
Ray describes himself as “an ordinary turd.” Dupree describes him as a “lower-middle-class creep,” and these epithets would apply to many of Portis’s characters—through his next two similarly excellent novels, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos, and his short stories and essays. As Scott Bradfield notes, these characters are “always striving to sound more lucid, rational, and articulate than their crude educations permit, a combination of factors that, in Portis’s hands, flashes with eloquence.” Or, as Will Stephenson puts it, these are “pitiable, fascinating characters who can’t go along, who scheme and fail and scheme again to find a place in the order of things.”
Portis’s novels were a little too humorous and little too “regional” to attract the kind of critical attention that leads to National Book Awards and excerpts in textbook anthologies. Too many “pale cranks,” bushwhackers, and “jackleg preachers.” But with this indispensable new volume (and the fanfare accompanying it), Portis may finally be getting his due.