Charles Portis Has Passed Away
An author with True Grit
Charles Portis, the author of True Grit, has passed away at the age of 86. He died from Alzheimer’s disease, which is especially tragic given his gifts as a storyteller. Portis passed away in Little Rock, Arkansas, his home for most of his adult life.
True Grit, his most famous work, punctures the myth of the American West, with a protagonist who is a hired gun for the book’s narrator. Mattie Ross, 14, seeks justice for her father after a minor outlaw guns him down. She enlists Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed drunkard and former Confederate guerrilla, as her instrument of vengeance, but she insists on tagging along. Their journey made such a good story that Hollywood filmed it twice, once in 1969 (it was the only film for which John Wayne won a competitive Oscar in his long career) and again by the Coen Brothers in 2010, with Jeff Bridges stepping into the Duke’s shoes for the role of Cogburn.
Portis was born in 1933 and served in the Army in the early 1950s. After getting a degree in journalism in 1958, he made his living covering the news of the day (including the growing civil-rights movement) for various newspapers. He left journalism in 1964 to pursue fiction writing, publishing his first novel (Norwood) two years later. This debut set the tone for his subsequent output; told in laconic, understated style, it relates a story of a down-on-his-luck former soldier going cross country in an attempt to find a life for himself.
All of his novels are really “road stories,” with protagonists caught out on the open road to seek their own version of the American dream (even if it takes them south of the border, like in 1991’s Gringos). In all, Portis wrote five novels; along with the aforementioned ones, The Dog of the South from 1979 and Masters of Atlantis from 1985 comprise a body of work that stands up to the best of of his contemporaries.
“Dog” is another road novel, and a good one, about a man who pursues his wife not out of love for her but for love of his Ford Torino. “Masters” tells the bewildering history of a quasi-religious cult a lot like Scientology, with petty arguments amid the leaders. Both are worth seeking out, but if you decided to stick to just True Grit, you’d still get a sense of the comic timing and storytelling talent that Portis possessed.
Portis’ prose is not flashy; there’s just enough there to move the story along, every befuddling inch along the way. But it works because when Portis is at his best, his stories have a drive all their own. Though Gringos was his last novel, a non-fiction collection entitled Escape Velocity is worth seeking out once you’ve given his fiction a try. In many ways, Portis was a modern-day Mark Twain, spinning yarns of simple folks just trying to survive in an America that might not be all that accommodating of their hopes and dreams. And he also knew when to laugh at them, and when to laugh with them.