Congratulate yourself if you knew “True Grit” was a novel before it was a John Wayne movie, remade in 2010 by the Coen brothers.
By EDWARD M. EVELD
The Kansas City Star
And the name of the author?
Yeah, didn’t think so. This is not entirely your fault. The fact that so few people today are familiar with the book and its author, Charles Portis, ranks up there with American literature’s worst crying shames.
Here we have a chance to partly rectify the situation: “True Grit” the novel is the current choice of the FYI Book Club and this fall’s Kansas City Public Library Big Read selection.
The book, published in 1968, quickly was tagged an American classic. In the afterword of a more recent edition, writer Donna Tartt declared it a “masterpiece.”
Alas, the film starring the legendary actor — Wayne won an Oscar for his deputy marshal Rooster Cogburn — hit movie screens soon after, in 1969. Eventually, as happens, the movie was what everyone knew.
Meanwhile Portis, who could have played his success for celebrity instead engineered for himself a very private life, consistently declining appearances and interviews, including a request for this story.
Portis is 79 and lives in Little Rock, Ark. He’s revered by other writers and, in a way, famous among them for being not famous. Writer Jonathan Lethem called Portis “everybody’s favorite least-known great novelist.”
“He’s not reclusive,” says Jay Jennings, writer and Little Rock native who has known Portis for years. “He has a local life. It’s just that he prefers to keep his private life private.”
“True Grit” shines for many reasons, but the biggest is the main character, Mattie Ross, a deadly serious 14-year-old.
“In the book, it’s really all Mattie all the time,” says Thomas Fox Averill, novelist and professor at Washburn University in Topeka.
Mattie’s adventure, circa 1878, is the plot driver, and it couldn’t be simpler: Determined young woman sets out to avenge her father’s murder.
It’s a much older Mattie who recounts the tale. “Here is what happened,” she says plainly near the book’s beginning.
“It’s like watching an arrow in flight, from bow to bulls-eye,” Averill says about the storyline. “But despite that simplicity, the book is rich and complicated and interesting.”
Given Mattie’s age and her rural Arkansas upbringing, this could have been a coming-of-age tale. But Mattie is “of age” from the start. It’s clearly everyone else who needs to grow up.
Comparison to another literary adolescent, Huck Finn, was inevitable, but the two protagonists aren’t cut from anything close to the same cloth. Mattie’s fabric is stiff as steel.
It does make sense, though, to detect some Mark Twain in Portis, starting with both writers’ fun-poking and dry humor.
“Low comedy, high comedy, ‘True Grit’ is shot through with humor,” says Jennings, who edited a recent compendium, “Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscelleany.”
This even though the all-business, task-oriented Mattie is wholly humor-free. One of her first tasks is to hire a lawman with “true grit” to help track down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney.
Turns out she’s the one with all the grit. Mostly she needs a travel guide.
“How Portis pulls off the humor is one of the brilliances of the book,” Averill says.
In a transcript-style court scene, Deputy U.S. Marshal Cogburn, famed for his loose guns, defends his use of weaponry in one deadly case:
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 backward when I’m backing up.”
While Twain attempted to mirror dialect, Portis has Mattie narrate, and his characters converse, in an oddly formal style. That’s played up to great effect by directors Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2010 movie, starring Jeff Bridges.
Here’s Mattie in the book talking to Cogburn, making it clear that revenge will be certain and it will be hers:
“First I will have an understanding. Can we leave for the Territory this afternoon?”
He sat up in the bed. “Wait,” he said. “Hold up. You are not going.”
“That is part of it,” said I.
“It cannot be done.”
“And why not? You have misjudged me if you think I am silly enough to give you a hundred dollars and watch you ride away. No, I will see the thing done myself.”
It cannot be done? You have misjudged me? Who talks like that? Why all the unused contractions?
The answer may be in Portis’ preparations for writing the novel and his early experience in small-town journalism.
Jennings says Portis was drawn to the post-Civil War era, when the Wild West was still wild but changing, and did his homework for the book. “True Grit” was Portis’ second novel. His first was “Norwood,” a comic road odyssey set in the 1950s.
“The idea intrigued him of this adventure so close to where he grew up, just over the border in what was then Indian country,” Jennings says.
His research included the reading of Western memoirs. As with letters from the time, the writing style of the 19th century can sound stilted to the modern ear. In “True Grit,” Mattie tells the story looking back, memoir-like.
The formal-sounding conversations in the book also neatly reflect the 19th-century attitude that “your word is your coin,” Averill says, and help create a separate world the reader can inhabit while engaged in the story.
“I think perhaps it’s a little artificial, and I think it really works,” Averill says.
Mattie also is prone to quote Scripture and to counsel with aphorisms: “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains,” she says, voicing her disapproval of Cogburn’s drunkenness.
Before he wrote fiction, Portis had a relatively short journalism career. Early on, working for newspapers in Arkansas, he edited dispatches from small-town stringers, mostly women, and was told to excise their country sayings. Mattie might have picked up a few of those.
Jennings says Portis gravitated toward journalism at the University of Arkansas following his service in the Marines. His reasoning, in his words, was that “I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.”
After newspaper jobs in Memphis and Little Rock, he moved on to the New York Herald Tribune, eventually spending a year as London bureau chief. The paper sent him to the South in the early 1960s to cover the civil rights movement.
His reports revealed an eye for detail and flashes of novelistic insight, Jennings says.
Portis attended a Ku Klux Klan rally in Alabama and ended his story this way: “Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.”
And a wry cynicism?
Finishing “True Grit,” readers are left to consider whether they just experienced a traditional western adventure — revenge and frontier justice — or a send-up of a waning Wild West culture. Or both.
Mattie, after all, jumps freely into the adventure, and it’s not a pretty one. In a matter of 11 days, by Averill’s count, she witnesses or hears about 40 deaths. It’s revealed that Cogburn hails from Osceola, Mo., and rode with Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill during the war.
But Mattie also is allowed throughout the book to show her contempt for it all, the violence and recklessness, the broken promises and paybacks. She’s the outsider, Averill says, the female in a man’s world, the child in an adult world.
Some of these subtleties no doubt have been lost on many moviegoers.
“This is one of those novels that confirms the notion — the book is better than the movie,” Averill says.