When Charles Portis died in February 2020 at 86 years old, of complications from Alzheimer’s, even some of his fans were surprised to hear he’d still been alive. His last brush with mainstream attention had been in 2010, when two good things happened to him. First, the Oxford American magazine presented him with an award for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature. Second, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of his sophomore novel True Grit (1968) premiered Christmas week, grossed a quarter-billion dollars worldwide, and was nominated for ten Oscars. The first adaptation from 1969—starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell and a young Kim Darby—is often misremembered as a classic by people who haven’t seen it lately. The Coens’ version—starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld—is far more spirited and faithful, but let’s get back to the Oxford American party.
It was a black-tie fundraising gala held at the finest hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Portis lived. (The magazine, founded in Oxford, Mississippi in the late Eighties, had relocated to Conway, Arkansas in 2004.) Mary Steenburgen was master of ceremonies, and the other marquee honoree was Morgan Freeman, whose purchase of the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi had kept it from going under and therefore constituted an Outstanding Contribution to Southern Culture. Portis hadn’t published a novel in nearly twenty years, but he turned up finely turned out, only to bolt for home before the ceremony began. By the time the organizers tracked him down he had changed out of his evening wear into khaki pants and a beige windbreaker. He was coaxed back to the gala but didn’t want to change again, so it was in this garb that he took the stage and accepted a golden statue of a rooster from then-editor Marc Smirnoff.
It’s a perfectly Portisean moment, in which an almost pathologically unassuming figure is coerced by circumstance into wagering a personal reserve of dignity against the overweening silliness of the world. The masterful touch—the one Portis would have invented if it hadn’t been invented for him—is of course the golden rooster statue, which was based on the magazine’s colophon but could not help alluding to True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn as well as Joann, “The College Educated Chicken,” from his debut novel, Norwood (1966). As far as I can tell, this was the last public appearance he ever made.
Portis was born in El Dorado, Arkansas in 1933. He joined the Marine Corps in 1952, saw combat in Korea, then studied journalism at the University of Arkansas. He held jobs at a string of regional papers before moving to New York in 1960 to work at the Herald Tribune, which sent him back South in 1963 to cover the civil rights movement, then promoted him to London bureau chief, a job once held by Karl Marx. (Portis liked to joke that if the paper had paid better, history would have been spared a lot of heartache.) In 1964 he quit journalism and moved back to Arkansas, which would be home base for the rest of his life, though he spent a lot of time traveling in Central and South America. He wrote Norwood in a rented fishing shack and sold it almost as soon as he finished. It was published to warm reception in 1966 and he never worked a straight job again.
The hallmark of Portis’s work is farce delivered with a straight face in successions of tightly choreographed set pieces, splitting the difference between the picaresque and the grotesque. He draws on a tradition established by Melville in Moby-Dick, and sustained across the generations by writers as varied as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Kennedy Toole, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Denis Johnson, Donald Antrim, Mary Robison, Paul Beatty, Percival Everett and Nell Zink.
“Anything I set out to do degenerates pretty quickly into farce,” Portis told Newsweek in 1985. “I can’t seem to control that.” But one should not mistake lightness for slightness. Portis is a comedian of the highest order, but he is finally—as all comedians must be—a moral philosopher, because comedy, like prophecy, is always grounded in a critique of the world as it is based on a vision of the world as it ought to be. I’m reminded of a remark of Flannery O’Connor’s, made in a brief preface to the second edition of Wise Blood, published in 1962, two years before the end of her life and four years before Portis’s debut. “All comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death,” O’Connor wrote. A few lines down, she poses a question: “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” For O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, the answer is yes: his inability to refuse Christ is the bedrock of his integrity and the path to his salvation, brutal as it is when it arrives. For Portis’s schemers, dreamers, dropouts, road-trippers, scammers and pilgrims, the answer varies based on who is driving the given story and what it is they’re after. But Portis, unlike O’Connor, has a baseline level of respect for anyone stubborn enough to sustain whatever quest they may happen to be on, separate from the question of whether said quest is worth completing or if it ought to have been undertaken in the first place.
Such pioneer spirit is a distinctly American quality, and nobody embodied it more fully while also mocking it more ruthlessly than Portis in his five peerless novels. A new Library of America Collected Works gathers them together in one volume, supplemented by a judicious selection of “Stories & Other Writings”—all told 1,100 pages of handsomely bound bible-paper well worth your $45 and the mild eye strain. What comes into focus as you make your way through is a worldview that favors that old Emersonian notion of self-reliance, as well as the observation made by the man in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” that “good fences make good neighbors.” These are loquacious, peripatetic novels written by a guy who thought that people ought to stay home and keep to themselves. Exactly none of his characters are able to do this, and it is from their extravagant failures of silence and stillness that Portis’s comedy derives.
Norwood, the novel borne out of the fishing shack, is appropriately country-fried in its concerns. It begins, “Norwood had to get a hardship discharge when Mr. Pratt died because there wasn’t anyone else at home to look after Vernell. Vernell was Norwood’s sister. She was a heavy, sleepy girl with bad posture. She was old enough to look after herself and quite large enough, but in many ways she was a great big baby.” Norwood takes his discharge, “which he felt to be shameful,” and heads home on a bus from the East Coast to Ralph, Texas. Then he remembers that a fellow Marine named Joe William Reese owes him seventy dollars. This uncollected debt haunts him all the way back to Ralph, and eventually leads him to take a job with Grady Fring the Kredit King, a local entrepreneur who needs a car delivered to New York City, where it’s rumored that Reese has been living.
Norwood’s world is that of the Louisiana Hayride radio hour and bread trucks you can hitch a ride with; the city he arrives in is full of beatniks and journalists, equally reprobate in the eyes of the novel—as well as, one assumes, the eyes of the novelist, himself a defector from both journalism and New York. Norwood finds a writer named Dave Heineman is living in the apartment on East 11th Street where he expected to find Reese. Heineman writes travel journalism without traveling. He riffs off tip sheets he gets from travel agents: “Sunny and gracious old Lima, city of contrasts, where the old meets the new. Old guys making pots and plying similar ancient trades in the shadow of modern skyscrapers. That’s what I write.”
Norwood is standing in a tenement that could be out of a Grace Paley if not a Stephen Crane story, and he himself is a living relic of Old Weird America, but the guy he’s talking to could have wandered in from Great Jones Street or Inside Llewyn Davis. The year is 1961 and they’re barely a mile from Dylan at the Gaslight if they only knew to go check him out. Heineman introduces Norwood to Marie, a beatnik who lives upstairs and wants to form a folk duo with him. In a telling detail, they take their repertoire “from a book” because for all his country-fried bona fides, Norwood doesn’t know any folk songs. “I like modern love numbers better,” he says, by which he means the emergent radio-friendly country music of Hayride veterans such as Dale Evans, Hank Snow, Roy Rogers, Kitty Wells and Lefty Frizzell. (Norwood was adapted for the screen with Glen Campbell in the title role.) The murder ballads, work songs, antebellum anthems and dustbowl laments fetishized by the Greenwich Village set would surely register to Norwood as the music of his parents’ or even grandparents’ generation—antique and hopelessly uncool—assuming he recognized them at all.
It occurred to me on this read of the novel (my third or fourth time through it) that the sci-fi writer William Gibson’s proverb, “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed,” is the obverse of Faulkner’s “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Rather than wait for the future to find him, Norwood has sought it out, but unwittingly, which is why he cannot recognize that he has arrived. When his New York sojourn ends, the bus trip back to Texas (a repetition of the bus trip that opened the novel) feels like travel through time as much as space. The closer he gets to his rightful realm, the better things go for him: he finds Joe William Reese, picks up that genius chicken and meets a girl. Contra Thomas Wolfe, it turns out that sometimes you can go home again, and furthermore if you can then you probably should.
Norwood did well for itself: edited by Robert Gottlieb, excerpted in the Saturday Evening Post, adapted for the screen. But Portis’s major commercial and aesthetic breakthrough was True Grit (1968), the story of Mattie Ross, a sharp-tongued fourteen-year-old farm girl who seeks justice for her murdered father with the help of a drunken U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn and a popinjay Texas Ranger. The film rights sold for $300,000 (roughly $2.5 million in today’s money) while the novel was still in galleys, and the book spent 22 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. True Grit has so massively overshadowed the rest of Portis’s oeuvre that you can read pieces complaining about it unto this day, though even the most vociferous defenders of Portis’s other work do typically concede that True Grit lives up to its hype.
From a certain point of view, True Grit is Norwood all over again, set a century back in time and with the locus of its farce shifted from the goal of the quest to the person who undertakes it. Nobody doubts the righteousness of Mattie Ross’s cause, they only find her an absurd agent of justice on account of her age and gender. Perhaps too they have seen enough of the world to find her faith in justice itself somewhat naïve. The idea that power derives from moral authority rather than moral authority from power is something that most of the adults in her world have left behind long ago, whether on Civil War battlefields or Indian raids or simply from lifetimes of cheating each other at everything from commerce to cards. Mattie’s convictions, candor and absolute lack of irony make her ridiculous in the eyes of everyone she meets, but they take their own dismissive attitude toward her as a referendum on what she is capable of, which is why she always gets the better of whoever she’s dealing with. Where Norwood is all the more a patsy for thinking himself a player, Mattie is an irresistible force in a world of pushovers who have mistaken themselves for immovable objects.
Mattie narrates the novel from a present day that I take to be the Twenties or Thirties, roughly half a century after the events in question. The Wayne film dispenses entirely with adult Mattie’s point of view; the Coens reinstate it, but sparingly, more as a gesture than a fully developed frame. To truly understand Mattie, you have to know her on the far side of her own middle years, around the age Cogburn would have been when she knew him. She is thinking back with wonder and unease to the strangest thing that ever happened to her, in the autumn of a long life in which not a lot has happened. Mattie is loath to admit emotion, cites Bible verses to underscore whatever point she’s making, and is given to nonplussed reflection on how things have changed since the turn of the twentieth century. She is a last link to a lost world, to a whole mode of being barely intelligible to a modern listener of her own day, let alone ours.
As a girl, her Ahabian single-mindedness made her heroic. What’s more, it brought out the latent heroism in Cogburn, a veteran of the Confederate terror cell known as Quantrill’s Raiders. Before Mattie, his shame over the atrocities he committed during the war manifested primarily as alcoholic nihilism. As her quest becomes his own, her faith in him surrogates his long-extinguished faith in himself; he becomes her ward as much as she his, and so they are each the other’s saviors. For a while. But it is Mattie’s same single-mindedness—ossified across decades and brought to bear on countless events of lesser merit—that has hardened her into a scolding moralist telling a story whose deepest profundities are ever slipping out of her grasp. This is the comfortless lesson at the heart of Portis’s hilarious, huge-hearted novel: not even salvation lasts forever. It can come and go in the blink of an eye, or the echo of a rifle’s report, or, as Mattie might put it, citing 1 Thessalonians 5, “like a thief in the night.”
By the time Portis’s third novel, The Dog of the South, appeared in 1979, the momentum from True Grit had long since dissipated. He had fallen into cult-writer eclipse, which, however badly it may have galled his fans and champions, seems to have suited him just fine. Without a proper biography to refer to, it’s hard to say what Portis did with his decade of silence. The “Chronology” section of the Library of America edition mentions some screenwriting work, and “his first and only appearance” in the New Yorker in 1977, with a satiric sketch called “Your Action Line,” which is duly collected here. He might have been chipping away at Dog all the while; he might have started something else and abandoned it; he might have just needed a break after writing two novels in three years. Two things that we can be certain he was doing: spending considerable stretches of time in Central and South America, where much of Dog and later Gringos would be set, and watching the Sixties curdle into the Seventies. Portis was enough of an outlaw from the straight life (no day job, no family, sometimes no fixed address) to sympathize with anyone who wanted to escape the horse latitudes of the mid-century middle-class. But starry-eyed aquarians, wannabe revolutionaries and drug-addled free lovers pushed his live-and-let-live tolerance (and, one suspects, his small-c conservatism) to its breaking point. For starters, the hippies wanted to do everything together. Their love-ins, be-ins, festivals, orgies, communes and communism can only have repulsed a consummate loner such as Portis. Whenever the counterculture shows up in his post-Sixties novels, it is portrayed as a cesspool of violence, criminality and sleaze.
Like Norwood Pratt and Mattie Ross, The Dog of the South’s Ray Midge has a sense of justice that extends to the terms on which it shall be administered. His wife Norma has ditched him for her old beau, Dupree, out on bail after sending threatening letters to the president, which—this being the late Sixties—has lent him some countercultural cool. Norma and Dupree have stolen Midge’s credit cards, “my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles. It was just like him to pick the .410—a boy’s first gun.” They’ve also exchanged Dupree’s rust-bucket Buick for Midge’s pristine Torino. Midge tracks their progress south from Memphis to Texas to Mexico by the addresses on the credit-card receipts. A lawyer named Jack Wilkie, who holds the note on Dupree’s bail bond, and a con artist named Dr. Symes, who owns the broken-down bus that serves as the novel’s namesake, join up for stints of the trip.
When Wilkie first catches up with Midge in Laredo, Texas, he’s angry that Midge didn’t share the intel about the credit receipts: they could have pooled resources since they’re after the same people. “I was going to tell you as soon as I got my car back,” Midge tells him. “I wanted to get my car without your help.” “What difference does it make as long as you get your car?” Wilkie wants to know. “It’s not the same thing,” Midge replies, a clear echo of Mattie Ross insisting to Cogburn and Ranger LaBoeuf that she will not be satisfied if her father’s killer is hung in Texas on a separate (and, for them, more lucrative) warrant; he must be tried for her father’s murder specifically, and on Arkansas soil.
The Dog of the South features some of the funniest passages in all of Portis. At one point, Symes describes to Midge his plans for developing an island off the coast of Louisiana that his mother owns and has designated a bird sanctuary. Symes intends to strong-arm her out of the deed so he can turn it into a Confederate theme park:
I’d have Lee too, and Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston, walking around the midway. Hire some people with beards, you know, to do that. I wouldn’t have Braxton Bragg or Joseph E. Johnston. Every afternoon at three Lee would take off his gray coat and wrestle an alligator in a mud hole. Prize drawings. A lot of T-shirts and maybe a few black-and-white portables. If you don’t like that, how about a stock-car track? Year-round racing with hardly any rules. Deadly curves right on the water. The Symes 500 on Christmas day. Get a promotional tie-in with the Sugar Bowl. How about an industrial park? How about a high-rise condominium with a roof garden? How about a baseball clinic? How about a monkey island? I don’t say it would be cheap. Nobody’s going to pay to see one or two monkeys these days. People want to see a lot of monkeys. I’ve got plenty of ideas but first I have to get my hands on the island.
Midge, who considers himself a scholar of Civil War history on account of two years spent at Ole Miss, ignores everything Symes has said except for the proposed omission of Bragg and Johnston from the theme park. He defends the generals’ honor while Symes suggests that what his island needs is a fifty-story tower with a revolving restaurant at the top. The ensuing exchange is hilariously absurd, and goes on for several pages, but it also has real moral and thematic weight. Portis wants us to see that the interwoven conversations about the war theme park and the war itself are fundamentally interchangeable. Both are examples of bullshitters bullshitting each other and themselves about their bullshit dreams: of the past, of the future, of any place where glory and riches and respect once were or yet may be found, because their present lives are squalid and hopelessly sad.
All the principal characters in The Dog of the South are looking to the generation above theirs for a handout and a steadying hand. None of them gets one. They’ve been cut loose and cut off, left to wander the wilderness of adulthood. When Midge finally catches up with Dupree in Belize, he finds him living alone on a failed plantation with Norma nowhere to be found. As Dupree draws down on Midge with Midge’s own gun, he realizes that they are more alike than not: a couple of losers on the lam from minimum respectability, who have crossed an entire hemisphere to have a standoff they could have had back home. “We are weaker than our fathers, Dupree,” Midge says. “Here we are, almost thirty years old, and neither one of us even has a job. We’re worse than the hippies.” In Portis’s universe, worse than a hippie is about the worst thing that you can be.
If the scheming quack Dr. Symes is the scene-stealing secret star of The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis (1985) takes place in a world populated entirely by Symeses. Everyone in this novel of cults, secret societies and esoteric knowledge is either a con man or a fool; most are both. The kindest but also most piteous thing to be said of them is that they maintain a perfect childlike faith in all their own stupidest ideas.
Masters of Atlantis begins in France in 1917, when a young World War I vet named Lamar Jimmerson meets a mysterious stranger who reveals that he is “an Adept of the Gnomon Society.” Jimmerson, himself an apprentice Freemason, is intrigued. The stranger is gone within a page, but Jimmerson will become a master of Gnomonry, developing its tenets and swelling its ranks, first assisted and later thwarted by Sydney Hen, a wealthy Brit who funds Jimmerson’s efforts before a feud instigated by an upstart Gnomonist named Austin Popper leads Hen to found a schismatic sect of his own. Popper befriends a strange Eastern European named Cezar Golescu, a self-described alchemist and member of countless secret societies (some so secret they may not exist) who has a scheme to harvest gold from the leaves of a pest plant grown in pots of soil taken from abandoned gold mines in Colorado.
Popper, Jimmerson, Hen, Golescu and a rejected acolyte turned FBI agent by the name of Pharris White will spend the twentieth century bouncing in and out of each other’s lives. Though it vamps at times as a systems novel and ably satirizes the peculiarly American enthusiasm for secret societies, Masters is really a story about the lengths to which people will go to convince themselves that the world is not indifferent to their existence, that their suffering has a purpose as well as a limit, to be revealed and made good in the fullness of time. The novel is Portis’s broadest comedy, derived from his silliest premise, yet it finds opportunities for small, breathtaking moments of intimacy and desolation, such as the scene in which Austin Popper, after barely escaping from a burning house and evading arrest at the hands of Pharris White, lays to rest his talking blue jay, Squanto, in the mineshaft where he is hiding out. “He scooped out a little grave for Squanto with a sharp rock. One day they would put him away like this, with dirt in his mouth. He ended the day on his knees, gasping for breath and smelling of burnt wool.”
Portis’s next novel, Gringos, picks up on this elegiac atmosphere and makes it even more pervasive. Though as whacked-out in concept and deft in execution as anything else in Portis, Gringos is a far less cartoonish novel than Masters of Atlantis, and his most earnest (the word is used advisedly) since True Grit. Portis was in his fifties when he wrote Gringos, which is nothing if not a novel of middle age. It is a book about regret and renewal, belatedness and compromise, making right what you can and making do with what you can’t (and, per the famous cliché, seeking the wisdom to know the difference). The story begins on Christmas and takes place over the following week, with its climactic action set on New Year’s Day. Our narrator is a white expat living in South America named Jimmy Burns, who gets by as a part-time artifact smuggler and PI, though he’s uneasy about the ethics of both lines of work. A chance encounter with some sketchy tourists leads him into a world of UFO cultists, apocalypse-hungry hippies and sundry New Age maniacs, all flooding the Yucatan in search of a lost, possibly nonexistent City of Dawn. It reads as though someone took The Crying of Lot 49—with its labyrinthine plot and conspiratorial mood—and triple-distilled it through the hard-boiled detective ethos of Sanctuary, Brighton Rock and The Long Goodbye.
Regarding the UFO people, Burns says, “as a geocentric I didn’t find this stuff convincing … Still, the flying saucer books were fun to read and there weren’t nearly enough of them to suit me. I liked the belligerent ones best, that took no crap off the science establishment.” Toward the other groups he is less conciliatory. “Refugio called the real hippies aves sin nidos, birds without nests, and los tóxicos, the dopers. These were the real hippies, the viciosos, the hardened bums, kids gone feral. … They came now the year ’round to Palenque, which is everyone’s idea of a lost city in the jungle—real hippies, false hippies, pyramid power people, various cranks and mystics, hollow earth people, flower children.”
Burns stumbles into a series of misadventures that ultimately converge on an underage runaway named LaJoye Mishell Teeter. Though he is himself a dropout from the straight life, and not precisely a law-abiding citizen, Burns is guided by a keen moral intuition that owes something to his faith. One might think of Jimmy Burns as a new version of Rooster Cogburn. (Not to get too overbearing about this, but it’s right there in their names: both men blaze when lit but Burns isn’t a cog in someone else’s machine.) Burns isn’t running from his past the way Cogburn is, and he doesn’t have nearly as much to atone for, but he is conscious of himself as a sinner, indeed as one who owes “debts” in the sense intended by the King James rendition of the Lord’s prayer, which he recites in the novel’s first chapter, pointedly refusing to follow the priest in using the more modern and abstract term, “trespasses.”
Burns’s quest, like Cogburn’s, originates with the promise of a bounty, but Burns spends a lot less time than Cogburn pretending to himself that money is what’s driving him. For Burns, it is a plain moral outrage that some poor teenage girl—her only sins were looking for a good time and wanting to get out of Florida—should wind up hostage to a gang of freaks whose trespasses extend from their ineptitude as shade-tree mechanics to their taste for human sacrifice. When everything is on the line, Burns prays to God to help him find LaJoye. He swears in prayer that he doesn’t want the reward money, only for the innocent to be saved from harm at the hands of the wicked. If Cogburn had been able to sustain the transformation effected by his encounter with Mattie Ross, he might have become a man like Jimmy Burns.
Because the climax of Gringos occurs three-quarters of the way through, there’s plenty of time for a ruminative, bittersweet denouement marked by deaths, surprises, sickness and recovery, a marriage. It reminded me, however improbably, of the “Finale” chapter of Middlemarch, and you don’t even have to squint that hard to see Jimmy Burns as a hidden saint. “You had to commit to something,” Jimmy says by way of winding up his story. “You finally had to plant a tree somewhere.” It’s true, and something I cannot imagine Rooster Cogburn saying, which is one more reason to weep for him.
Despite all the years on his head and blood on his hands, Rooster Cogburn stays a moral child his whole life. So do the self-deluded scammers of Masters of Atlantis, the quack doctor of The Dog of the South and the malevolent feckless hippies of Gringos. The belief that you can always start over in the next town or state or hemisphere or marriage or business plan is as American as apple pie. So is the reflexive conception of youthful narcissism as essentially innocent, even when it manifests as self-indulgent, self-destructive, callow or harmful. We fight to preserve that innocence (or its façade) for as long as possible, then fetishize it forever after it’s gone. Portis recognizes that innocence held past its expiration date spoils just like meat does, and stinks about as bad. For all of his Looney Tunes vitality and love of a good goof, these are novels that, when they’re forced to take a side, side with the grownups every time: Mattie Ross no less at fourteen than in her dotage; Ray Midge and Norwood once they’ve been sufficiently tried by life; Jimmy Burns right from the jump. Portis is their partisan not because they are above reproach but because they are not beyond hope. The only things he finds truly hopeless—both damnable and damned—are a refusal to grow up and a man who can’t change his own oil. Probably he would say that this is saying the same thing twice.
Art credit: Lynn Friedman (CC BY/Flickr)