Monday, 9 March 2020


My obituary of Charles Portis is in today's Daily Telegraph; it's also up online, and you can link to it here, though it is behind a paywall. There is no byline on Telegraph obits, and though what appears is pretty much what I wrote, for reasons of space a lot of detail was cut. And there was at least one reference that was not mine: when it calls the first movie of True Grit "corny". It may feature John Wayne having fun with himself, and some overly severe acting, but even in state it is too dark to be called corny. So here is what I originally filed, and I am grateful to the paper for sticking with Portis and eventually finding him some space....


Charles Portis, who has died aged 86, was, in the oft-repeated words of critic Ron Rosenbaum, America's 'least-known great novelist'. At least he was before his cult following of the good and the great got his five novels back into print, appropriately enough from former Penguin editor Peter Mayer's Overlook Press. Portis' literary low-profile was partly due to his low output and his reluctance to self-promote (though he was hardly a recluse, as he was often described), but mostly because his claim to fame happened to be a western, and worse, one made into a movie starring John Wayne.

Yet when True Grit appeared, Roald Dahl, in a rare book review, called it 'the best novel to come my way for a very long time...he hasn't put a foot wrong anywhere. What a writer.'
True Grit is the story of 14 year old Mattie Ross who, seeking to avenge the murder of her rancher father, hires hard-drinking deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn to track him down. Like all Portis' novels, it is a journey, peppered with eccentric characters, and stands its frequent comparison with one of the greatest American novels, Huckleberry Finn. Like Twain, Portis' eye for America's ingrained absurdities is presented almost as reportage. But like Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, True Grit is a recollection, with a now-elderly Mattie providing prickly, unreliable narration. Her aged Arkansas voice is pitch-perfect, which Portis once attributed to his time working on a paper in his college days, editing local reports by the Arkansas town ladies who filed in longhand.

Charles McColl Portis was born, appropriately enough for someone whose fiction was a series of quests, in El Dorado, Arkansas, 28 December 1933. His father Samuel came to El Dorado during an oil boom, where he met and married Alice Waddle. He began teaching, and his mother wrote for local papers. Portis grew up in a series of southern Arkansas towns, and after finishing high school, enlisted in the Marines and fought in the Korean War. Discharged a sergeant, he took a journalism degree from the University of Arkansas, working on the college paper, the Traveler, and the Northwest Arkansas Times. His first job was at the Memphis Commerical-Appeal, followed by two years with the Arkansas Gazette, where his work got him hired by the New York Herald-Tribune. At the Tribune his coverage of the civil rights movement across the South was so impressive that in 1963 he became their bureau chief in London.

Although he was considered one of the stars among a group of reporters at the Trib who went on to define 'new journalism', after a year in London he quit to return to a lake-side cabin in Arkansas and write fiction. Two years later, in 1966, his first novel, Norwood, was published after being serialised in The Saturday Evening Post. In it, Arkansas-born ex-Marine Norwood Pratt returns from Vietnam determined to become a famous singer, and is conned by Grady Fring the Kredit King into moving cars to New York, encountering a cast of eccentrics along the way, including Joann The Wonder Hen, a college-educated chicken.

True Grit was published two years later, its episodic journey again perfect for the Post's serialisation. After the film's success, Kim Darby (who played Mattie) and Glen Campbell were reunited alongside gridiron star Joe Namath in a friendly but flat movie version of Norwood, which was stolen by actresses Tish Sterling and Carol Lynley in smaller parts. Portis briefly tried script-doctoring in Los Angeles, but returned to Arkansas and his writing career, best summed up by his famous new journalism colleague Tom Wolfe in his usual flamboyant style: 'He made a fortune...A fishing shack! In Arkansas!...It was too goddamned perfect to be true”

It took 11 years before Portis' third novel, many people's cult favourite, The Dog Of The South appeared. Dreamy innocent Ray Midge heads south from Arkansas to track down his runaway wife, her lover Dupree, himself is being sought for writing letters threatening the president, and, most crucially, his Ford Torino car. His con-man is Dr Reo Symes, literally a snake-oil salesman, who himself is searching for the mysterious John Selmer Dix, author of inspirational self-help books for salesmen. Portis was hugely well-read, and it is not unreasonable to draw comparisons with another of America's greatest neglected novels, Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, with its panoply of hopeful, deluded Americans being taken for rides. The trick was the way Portis reported their sometimes surreal stories with straight-faced seriousness, in voices that resonated authenticity. As Portis scholar Carlos Rotella put it, 'when my 9-year-old daughter turned over a straight that beat my two pair and said “Shot by a child!” I knew that reading True Grit to my kids had been a good idea.'

Portis' next novel followed only six years later. Masters Of Atlantis (1985) begins in 1917, when an American doughboy, Lamar Jimmerman, is handed a manuscript by a London beggar. The Codex Pappus leads him to the secret Gnomon Society and an Englishman called Sir Sydney Hen with whom he creates a religion, which attracts an American con-man preacher, Austin Popper. It reads like a slapstick combination of Thomas Pynchon's V and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. Six years after that came Gringos (1991), in which another ex-Marine, Jimmy Burns, sells illegal antiquities in a dangerous Mexico almost as strange as Portis' America.

In 2010 the Coen Brothers remade True Grit, which propelled Portis back into the public eye, and in 2012 a miscellany of his shorter writing, Escape Velocity, was published. That year also saw Portis diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In 2014, he was honoured at a Gala at the governor's mansion in Little Rock, but he was unable to attend. In a moment of pure Portis fiction, the keynote speaker, journalist Ray Reed, sent his last-minute regrets, because the headlights of his car weren't working. Portis died 17 February 2020, in a Little Rock hospice, survived by his brother Jonathan. In Gringos, Jimmy Burns muses that 'none of us, not even the high-jumper slithering over his crossbar, ever gets very far off the earth. And yet we come down hard.' He never married and leaves no survivors.

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