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The Novelist Who Truly Understood the South



A punch-drunk love of American language swells throughout the Coen brothers’ films: the rapid-fire New York dialogue in The Hudsucker Proxy, the nasal timbre of the upper Plains in Fargo, the California dude-speak in The Big Lebowski. In 2010, that passion drew them to reprise True Grit, based on the novelist Charles Portis’s tour de force about a teenage girl’s quest to avenge her father’s death. Set in 1870s Arkansas and the Choctaw lands of present-day Oklahoma, the book brims with colloquialisms and cadences that are best read aloud.

Many Americans don’t realize that True Grit was originally a novel, published in 1968. Though often framed as a Western (probably because of John Wayne’s swaggering performance in the first screen adaption), it fits within Portis’s broader oeuvre—one that is inexorably southern in its evocation of a particular place and people, and in its command of the vernacular. Library of America’s newly released Charles Portis: Collected Works bundles his five novels with select stories, essays, and journalism, elevating him to the level of some of his better-known peers: Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy. The retrospective reveals a consummate humorist and sharp-eyed chronicler of human flaws—those deeply embedded racial, religious, and socioeconomic prejudices Portis observed in the American South, a region that he saw as a microcosm for the country as a whole.

For Portis, literature was a comic art, one that insists on laughter amid bloodshed and backroom swindles. His South is a circus of the dispossessed, teeming with con artists and broken farmers; carnival performers and fortune-telling chickens; cars with ailing transmissions; guns, guns, and more guns. Portis’s world is preternaturally violent—perhaps a legacy of the ruthless Scots-Irish settlers of the 18th century—but he sees comedy where other authors see tragedy; redemption where others see brimstone. Like McCarthy, he’s attracted to vaudevillian absurdity, but he avoids McCarthy’s moody existentialism.


Born in Arkansas in 1933, Portis began his writing career as a journalist. He eventually worked general assignments with Tom Wolfe at the New York Herald Tribune, where he covered some of the most dramatic events of the civil-rights era, including the 1963 murder of the activist Medgar Evers and the March on Washington. Portis’s early articles reveal the deadpan irony that would later characterize his fiction. In an article about a gathering of Ku Klux Klansmen in Bessemer, Alabama, he robs a terrible scene of its power with his light mocking tone: “By 10:30 p.m. one of the crosses had collapsed and the other was just smoldering. Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.”

Portis knew his way around a car (and a truck and a tractor). In 1964, he quit the newspaper business and decamped back to Arkansas to focus on his fiction. His subsequent novels and stories display his deep knowledge of machinery, rural life, and the eccentricities of his neighbors—but reflect everything in fun-house mirrors, bending and warping the familiar almost beyond recognition. He satirizes his fellow southerners, incorporating their particular dialect (including its sometimes-racist elements) into his craft, all while treating these characters with grace and even tenderness.

Though his novels form the core of Collected Works, Portis was also a skilled essayist, his techniques honed in the early days of New Journalism. In 1966, the year he brought out his first novel, he also published “That New Sound From Nashville,” an essay on an emerging generation of country-music stars, such as Porter Wagoner and Loretta Lynn. He evokes the glittery, boozy milieu with the confidence of Joan Didion (if she’d found herself spending an evening at the famous honky-tonk Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge). “On Saturday nights, performers … go in the back door of Tootsie’s to get aholt of themselves between sets with some refreshing suds,” Portis writes. “Songwriters—‘cleffers,’ as the trade mags say—sit around and chat and wait for artistic revelation. Deals are closed there. New, strange guitar licks are conceived.” Note the pitch-perfect placement of passive constructions, the “aholt” of South Midland vernacular that Portis smoothly slips into his prose.

Country music was a secular space where a romance gone bad or one too many highballs wouldn’t kill you, even if the hangover lingered. But in Portis’s work, this wayward version of the South frequently butts up against the ubiquitous presence of Christianity. Where McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor’s worldviews were governed by the binary of damnation and salvation, Portis wasn’t particularly interested in hell or paradise; he writes picaresques for those caught in purgatory, seeking escape. The journey is the point. The eponymous lead in his 1966 debut, Norwood, leaves rough circumstances in his Texas town and hops a bus to New York City in pursuit of $70 owed to him by an old Marine buddy, Joe William Reese. Hijinks ensue. Norwood finds Reese’s apartment on 11th Street only to discover that Reese is already headed back to Arkansas. So he boomerangs south, accompanied by his brand-new fiancée, Rita Lee; Edmund, an out-of-work thespian; and a chicken named Joann. The prospect of a respectable life in Louisiana beckons.

The road-trip structure also informs Portis’s enthralling third novel, The Dog of the South. Driving a battered Buick, Ray Midge chases his wife, who has just taken off with her ex-husband, sniffing out their trail from credit-card receipts. Midge is an archetypal Portis penitent, atoning for his lack of ambition, petty thefts, and perhaps the worst transgression of all: being born blue-collar in a postwar, upwardly mobile America. Near the Rio Grande, Midge holes up in a motel room where he’s visited by a bizarre huckster in clown shoes. The man hands him a strange card that features two crossed American flags and a caption that reads Kwitcherbellyachin and then vanishes into the night. “I’m on the alert for omens,” Midge says. “Odd things happen when you get out of town.”

When he accidentally decapitates a cat who has crawled into his Buick’s engine for warmth, Midge recoils: “I couldn’t handle anything … Idleness and solitude led to these dramatics: an ordinary turd indulging himself as the chief of sinners.” This isn’t mere self-loathing; he’s internalized how others view him—as a 26-year-old loafer who can’t hold down a job—and scenes like this show how deeply Portis’s sympathies lie with the struggles of the white underclass. “The back of his neck, a web of cracks, was burnt to the color and texture of red brick from much honest labor in the sun,” observes Jimmy Burns, the narrator of Portis’s final novel, Gringos, about a logging contractor he meets in Mexico. “The thanks [these laborers] got for all their noonday sweat was to be called a contemptuous name.” (He’s referring, of course, to redneck, a term that likely stems from the sunburn that outdoor workers get on the back of their neck.)


Like his fellow southern masters, Portis, despite his secular leanings, draws on Christian scriptures as well as Greek myths. He knows his Bible stone-cold. On the cusp of the Great Depression, middle-aged Mattie Ross, the protagonist of True Grit, writes a memoir about her adolescent trek for justice with one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, a trigger-happy federal marshal, and LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger. Portis evokes the predilections and prejudices of his southern milieu through Mattie’s voice, especially when she combs through granular distinctions between different Christian denominations: In the South, your Church doesn’t just indicate what your religious beliefs are; it can speak volumes about your zip code, manners, preferred restaurants, and cinema choices. When she meets a Native woman in the bush, Mattie says: “The Indian woman spoke good English and I learned to my surprise that she too was a Presbyterian.” Mattie is oblivious to her own prejudices, a fact that Portis manipulates subtly—rather than casting his characters as overt bigots, Portis lets them expose themselves with off-the-cuff asides.

Ever the intrepid newsman, Portis plays tourist throughout his Collected Works. The volume alludes to tacky traps like Chattanooga’s mountain lookout, Rock City, and rotating restaurants such as the one atop Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza. A Civil War buff, Midge dutifully references battles and rebel commanders, such as the Confederate generals Joseph Johnston and Braxton Bragg. These set pieces may read like hieroglyphs to non-southerners, but Collected Works is a Rosetta stone, deciphering a region and a history that spans from the colonial era through slavery, Jim Crow, and the present day. A writer who saw the humor in America’s tragic past, Portis reflects the peculiarities and bigotries of the South, many of which, he seems to argue, are simply exaggerated forms of those found in every corner of the country.

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Source: The Atlantic

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