Charles Portis Collection Ideal Father’s Day Gift

     The DVD of True Grit hits shelves June 7. This current Coen Brothers’ take on one of Charles Portis’ greatest literary works has been met with critical acclaim, as was the original 1969 film which landed John Wayne an academy award.

     This revived interest in Charles Portis has led readers to return to his novels for a second look. Now, you can share the classic Portis collection with the men in your life for Father’s Day. SLR contributor Abigail Greenbaum has written a fabulous feature about Portis’ works. We hope you’ll enjoy reading her take on this iconic southern author.

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A Comedy of Extinction:

“True Grit,” “Gringos,” and “Masters of Atlantis” by Charles Portis

Feature by Abigail Greenbaum

     In an early scene in True Grit, a defense attorney questions Rooster Cogburn’s dubious ability to escape alive from violent scenes: “You are truly one of nature’s survivors, Mr. Cogburn, and I do not make light of your gift.” In Cogburn, Charles Portis captures a wry and sometimes hapless ability to survive that animates much of his fiction, including True Grit, Gringos, and Masters of Atlantis. In all these novels, the characters struggle to survive both mortal danger and the absurdities of American life, a recipe for some of the funniest and most captivating fiction around.

     Despite recently revived interest in his work, sparked in part by the Coen brothers’ adaptation of True Grit, Charles Portis remains one of our country’s most mysterious living writers. The reclusive Arkansas native rarely makes public appearances, and his novels, published now by Overlook Press, contain no author photographs. He served as a Marine in the Korean War, and has worked as a journalist in Arkansas, New York, and London. In addition to the novels reviewed here, he has published Norwood (1966) and The Dog of the South (1979), as well as a several essays. That Portis has commented so little on his fiction makes the act of reading even more exciting; we must take the books on their own terms, surrendering ourselves to the delightful and varied voices that narrate these novels.

     In True Grit (1968), Mattie Ross recounts the story of how, at age fourteen, she sought to avenge her father’s murder. “Here is what happened,” she repeats throughout the book, often introducing an account of events she did not witness. A testimonial quality booms through her narrative, bolstered by her steadfast Presbyterian beliefs and her devotion to a frontier that no longer exists.

     Mattie’s stoic sense of right and wrong, her refusal to sip on any whiskey or moral ambiguity, plays comically against the antics of Rooster Cogburn, the U.S. Marshal whom she hires to avenge her father’s death. To Mattie, killing her father’s murderer would be an act of righteous vengeance, but for Cogburn, death is a natural fact of the territorial landscape, tucked between the iconic dugouts and trading posts that populate Portis’s west. The novel first shows Cogburn as a witness in Judge Parker’s legendary court, but Cogburn’s record, not that of the outlaw defendant, appears to be on trial. When asked how many men he has shot, Cogburn stalls, “Shot or killed?” The cross-examiner replies, “Let us restrict it to ‘killed,’ so that we may have a manageable figure.”

     Cogburn strikes me as the more typical Portis character, both bemused and delighted by his survival. He prevails because he doesn’t seem to value his own breath too much, or more importantly, because he understands how much all other men value theirs: “You go at a man hard enough and fast enough and he don’t have time to think about how many is with him, he thinks about himself and how he may get clear of the wrath that is about to set down on him.”

      Even Mattie, whose sure sense of justice inspires the book’s adventures, echoes the contradictory nature of survival when she discusses her Presbyterian beliefs about election, that brand of grace that cannot be merited or purchased. “I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it.”

     Despite her youth, don’t mistake Mattie Ross for an innocent. Her view of the world is a “hard” one, and her young adventures, flinty as they are, are perhaps embellished by the older woman who narrates them. Mattie’s ability to deadpan in even the most dangerous situations shows her sand, of course, but also establishes her position in the archetypal line of Western heroes that Portis both mimics and memorializes in True Grit. Mattie narrates a story that preserves her own valor. In doing so, she also attempts to preserve a frontier world that has left few survivors.  

     Mattie speaks from the early twentieth century, a time when grit doesn’t seem to matter as much. The novel’s comedy and its pathos derive not only from the interplay between Mattie and Rooster, but also from the endearing absurdity of her devotion to a way of life already extinct. The novel closes years after its main events, at a Wild West show, described by Mattie as follows: “These old timers had all fought together in the border strife under Quantrill’s black standard, and afterward led dangerous lives, and now this was all they were fit for, to show themselves to the public like strange wild beasts of the jungle.”

     This moment at the end of True Grit recalls another moment in Portis’s more recent novel Gringos (1991), where the narrator, the tomb raider and expatriate Jimmy Burns, encounters a jaguar at a zoo in Mexico. “It was embarrassing. I had traveled all up and down the south and east of Mexico, and over into Belize and Guatemala, much of it on foot, and still I had to go to the zoo like everybody else to see this wonderful beast.”

     In Gringos, Portis combines the thrill of an adventure novel with the particular cool humor and eccentricity that graces his creations. As in True Grit, a frontier–this time the twentieth century Yucatan jungle–poses great dangers to Jimmy and his colorful companions, a ragtag bunch of lawless archeologists, UFO searchers, bounty hunters, and junkmen.

     Villainous hippies prove comic gold for Portis. One of Jimmy’s enemies, an ex-convict turned messianic guru named Dan, accosts the novel’s narrator in a dump: “Would you believe we have made twenty-four enemies in the north and twenty-four enemies in the south? No lie. You are exactly the twenty-fifth person in Mexico to find us loathsome and undesirable.” Without giving away the particulars of Dan’s sinister intentions, I say only that his mission concerns questions of human extinction.

     The novel’s Yucatan setting also develops the theme of extinction. Mayan ruins surround Jimmy Burns, but he is unable to glean any meaning or sense of purpose from such an archeological record. “These dead cities still lived and sparkled for [Doc Flandin] as they did not for me. This room had no message for me.” Like Rooster Cogburn before him, Jimmy Burns is one of “nature’s survivors,” and his inability to pan meaning, or in Jimmy’s words, “any such master principle,” from the fact of his survival forms the comic and deeply human backbone of the novel. In Gringos, as in all Portis novels, honorable intentions collide with the absurdity of human existence. Perhaps this is best expressed in Jimmy’s take on a misguided attempt to sing at a friend’s funeral: “It was forced, we couldn’t bring it off, and the appearance was that we were meanly and nervously celebrating our own survival.”

     Portis earned early acclaim as a writer of comic westerns, such as True Grit. Although Gringospits tomb-raiders against hippies, the book’s mix of outlaw sensibility and deadpan violence also seems heir to such a tradition. More baffling, perhaps, is the Portis novel Masters of Atlantis(1985), which chronicles the rises and falls of the arcane Gnomon Society, an order dedicated to the lost wisdom of Atlantis. Fans of True Grit and Gringosmay hesitate before devoting their attention to such esoteric material. Yet this eccentric and farcical novel seems driven by the same questions that color other Portis tales: How can a man find meaning in the face of decline and extinction? Is anything even worth preserving?

     Cezar Golescu, an interloper trying to obtain the secrets of Atlantis, has a theory about mankind that expresses a persistent emotional note in Portis’s fiction: “Organisms were changing, it was true enough, but instead of becoming more complex and, as it were, ascending, they were steadily degenerating into lower and lower forms, ultimately back to mud . . .. One’s father was invariably a better man than one’s self, and one’s grandfather better still.” 

     Heavy stuff to be sure, but Portis mines the decline of man for comic veins as well as tragic ones. All his novels, though varied in voice and plot, are girded by a sincere despair, and therefore rich with humor. His comedy of extinction seems kin to the work of Southern master Flannery O’Connor. In a letter, she writes “the Comic and the Terrible . . .may be opposite sides of the same coin.” Of her own work, she continues, “everything funny I have written is more terrible than it is funny, or only funny because it is terrible, or only terrible because it is funny.”

     Masters of Atlantisgives its readers a similarly delightful seesaw journey between laughter and pity. One chuckles at the travails of Master Lamar Jimmerson and his Gnomons, and Portis catalogs this precarious and often absurd society using an encyclopedic range of comic approaches, from satire to slapstick. Yet the book’s urgency also derives from the basic desire of its characters to believe in something meaningful as they age, and as the world they grew up in disappears.

     Struggles and schisms and general indifference plague the Gnomon society, and then the pitifully declined membership convene in a Texas trailer park. No matter how esoteric or absurd the Gnomon society might seem to a reader, their final gathering presents a touching and enviable vision for how aging men should live. No sanitized nursing homes here: the decrepit Gnomon masters, like any good outlaws, face their approaching deaths with all the humor and cool and wheelchair antics one might hope for. As one lesser Gnomon tells it: “It seemed an unlikely place for one to await apocalyptic events, but then what would be a likely place?”

     In a time when books themselves are perhaps as endangered as Atlantis or jaguars or gritty U.S. Marshals, don’t stop with the pitch-perfect Coen brothers’ adaptation of True Grit. Read the novel! And then, read Gringos and Masters of Atlantis, whose elaborate plots, populous casts, and wild scenery may never see the light of a movie screen. If the printed word is indeed facing a mass extinction, the novels of Charles Portis will no doubt number among the survivors.

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  1. Just like to say this is a very good piece that really understands Portis, especially in terms of the despair that’s ever-present with the wit. Enjoyed it a lot. As well as being profound, these books are ones you long to read again because you love the voices – Ray Midge, the Gnomons, Norwood Pratt.

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