Monday, November 21, 2011

True Grit: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

“Who is the best marshal they have?'

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, 'I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.'

I said, 'Where can I find this Rooster?”

According to the New York Times, “Charles Portis, the reclusive author of the 1968 novel True Grit, is a cult writer's cult writer, cherished by a small but devoted following.” Portis is not exactly a household name. I saw the original “True Grit” film when it first came out in 1969. I was a wee lad and my family was packed into a station wagon to watch the film at a drive-in. Possibly it was the first movie I ever saw at a theater of any kind, and as such holds a special place in my heart, though I believe I’ve only watched it once as an adult, maybe 20 years ago. Anyway, if I have a point with all this rambling, it’s that from the time I saw the movie as a kid until Portis was awarded The Oxford American's Award for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature in April of 2010, I never once thought of there actually being a novel on which the film was based, and so I never once gave a thought to a novelist named Charles Portis. And that’s my loss.

True Grit is a pretty good novel, and I say this as someone who doesn’t read westerns. The prose pulled me in right away; the story is told by Mattie, the teenage daughter of Frank Ross who was shot down in cold blood by “the coward Tom Chaney” and Mattie’s voice is stern and formal, lacking in contractions and chiding the reader who disagrees with her opinions, pointing to scripture to support her views and digressing here and there into the partisan politics of Arkansas.

I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father's death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious "claptrap." My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33. ["The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs..."]

It’s a ripping yarn, as they say, and it’s damned funny. The comedy is almost always ironic and subtle, a lot of it coming out of dialogue. I’d quote some here, but the way Portis sets up the jokes is by carefully crafting scenes where the meaning of facts is batted back and forth between two verbal combatants and the punch lines would make no sense out of context. But the three or four pages where Mattie settles with the horse trader who sold her father six ponies is brilliant, as is the testimony of Marshal Cogburn at the trial of a man whose father and several brothers were shot dead by the marshal during his arrest:

MR.GOUDY: I believe you testified that you backed away from Aaron Wharton.
MR.COGBURN: That is right.
MR.GOUDY: You were backing away?
MR.COGBURN: Yes sir. He had that ax raised.
MR.GOUDY: Which direction were you going?
MR.COGBURN: I always go backwards when I am backing up.

My only problem with this book might be that I don’t necessarily believe Mattie Ross is a 14 year-old girl. Certainly there could be (and maybe there are) 14 year-olds with the business acumen to outwit a horse trader and the ramrod spine to outtalk and bully a 40 year-old Federal marshal who spent four years in the Confederate army and more years after that as a highwayman, but the only reason we believe Mattie is a girl is because Portis has her say she’s one. Otherwise, True Grit is sort of your basic story of men on an adventure. If you make Mattie into a 14 year-old boy, you don’t have to change more than a few dozen words in the book. Certainly you don’t have to make any changes in Mattie’s character. I do not know what conclusions to draw from this observation. I also can’t say that there are any differences between 14 year-old boys and 14 year-old girls that aren’t entirely learned behavior so maybe Mr Portis is a wiser man than I am. If anyone has read the novel and has an opinion about this, do tell. Especially if you also have direct experience with/as a 14 year-old person.

Portis' other novels look pretty good. I plan to read Norwood sometime soon.

This weekend I also read the short novel The Life of Insects, by Victor Pelevin. It’s a postmodern or whatever comic novel about Gorbachov-era USSR, where the characters are presented as either insects or humans or some vacillating state in between. The dung beetles claim that every insect (and therefore every person) is a dung beetle even if he doesn’t know it, and that there is no difference between the dung and the beetle. That might serve as Pelevin’s statement of theme. The moths fly into the light, but there is no point to it. The mosquitoes suck the blood of whoever’s around, but their avarice gets them no happiness and it’s a dangerous game. A lot of this feels like Beckett in Waiting For Godot, but while the action is plenty violent, the humor is perhaps more gentle than in Beckett. Anyway, it’s good that TLoI is just a novella, because Pelevin’s idea just about overstayed its welcome at 176 pages. Though the chapter towards the end about the cicada was really gorgeous and sad.

I haven't decided if I'm going to read Pelevin's novel Omon Ra, which is apparently about a cosmonaut in a training program that bears a strong resemblance to Kafka's castle.


  1. I should try reading the True Grit book. I didn't care for the new movie much. I have yet to see the old one. :)

  2. I haven't seen the new movie, but the original one--as far as I can remember--was great. I plan to watch it again soon. The book is really good and should be more widely read than it is.