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Novelist Charles Portis Was a True Original

True Grit, poster, John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, 1969. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

For many people, Charles Portis will forever be remembered as the author of the 1968 book that became the 1969 film adaptation with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and then the Coen Brothers’ 2010 version. True Grit is a masterpiece. I mean that. It’s a perfect book. I feel the same about his first novel Norwood, which is a hilarious, weird road trip story. Portis’s third novel, The Dog of the South, is almost as good. I rarely say anything is perfect, but Portis’s first two novels strike me as completely satisfying, self-contained worlds that reveal greater wonders on repeat readings and are beyond improvement. I also rarely reread books, but when I’ve reread both of these, their facets only sparkle more brightly, and reveal greater finesse. Portis only published five novels in his lifetime, but by only five, I mean “only.” His legacy lies not in his total output but in his pages. These novels are dense with wit, a distinctive voice, and warped comic vision of the world, with plots driven by bumbling protagonists on long journeys that reward readers with constant laughs and endless surprises.

Portis died on February 17, 2020, at age 86. For The New Yorker, writer Wells Tower examines the author’s literary achievements, paints a brief portrait of a person who revealed little about himself, and celebrates a writer he believes was more than a comic, but a philosopher. Every fan Portis has their favorite passages, but part of his legacy is a tone that Tower calls “a shrug of quiet amusement.” His privacy also shaped his legacy. Portis avoided publicity. He dodged interviewers and kept to himself. Tower writes:

It’s hard to know whether Portis’s work ushered much comfort into his own life. My sense is that he was lonely. I imagine he had a fair bit in common with Jimmy Burns, described in “Gringos” as a “hard worker,” “solitary as a snake,” and, yes, “punctual.” Portis never married and had no children. He never published another novel after “Gringos,” from 1991. The closest he gets to self-portraiture comes in his short memoir “Combinations of Jacksons,” the essay published in The Atlantic. Toward the essay’s close, the author spots an “apparition” of his future self in the form of a geezer idling his station wagon alongside Portis at a traffic light in Little Rock. He wore “the gloat of a miser,” Portis writes. “Stiff gray hairs straggled out of the little relief hole at the back of his cap. . . . While not an ornament of our race, neither was he, I thought, the most depraved member of the gang.”

In his vision of himself at the wheel of the phantom station wagon, Portis goes on to write what feel like fitting instructions for how we ought to cope with this great and overlooked writer’s exit from the scene: “I could see myself all too clearly in that old butterscotch Pontiac, roaring flat out across the Mexican desert and laying down a streamer of smoke like a crop duster, with a goatherd to note my passing and (I flatter myself) to watch me until I was utterly gone, over a distant hill, and only then would he turn again with his stick to the straying flock. So be it.”

After reading Norwood, I fell in love with his narrative voice and wanted to know more about the person who created it. Information was scant.

Portis started his writing life as a journalist, eventually working beside future novelist Tom Wolf. By the time Portis published Norwood in 1966, he’d left the newsroom for what turned out to be forever. True Grit’s 1969 screen adaptation won John Wayne the only Oscar of his career, and generated so much money – $14.25 million at the box office – that Portis could lead a simple, quiet life in Little Rock, Arkansas, writing and frequenting local watering holes, where he was just another regular who smoked cigarettes and wet the four corners of his napkins so they didn’t stick to the bottom of his beer glass and make him look like an idiot. That’s the kind of detail Portis would have included in his books had he not been living it.

His love of beer joints made him sound accessible, so I tried to contact him back in April 2010.

Before Portis’s nonfiction miscellany Escape Velocity was published, I dug up every piece of his short nonfiction and fiction that I could in old issues of magazines like The Atlantic and Oxford American. They provided a biography, but they also generated more questions. I started piecing it all together in an essay about him and his work, where I tried to understand how his masterpieces existed in a biographical information vacuum, generating questions and speculation, what I called “a string of maybes.” His was just such a striking career turn: a lowly journalist sells his first novel to Hollywood and makes huge money, then takes increasing numbers of years to write each subsequent novel, before quiting publishing all together. Whatever his feelings about this transition from journalism to fiction, he seemed to have shared none of them with his fellow reporters. As Tom Wolfe says in The New Journalism, “One day [Portis] suddenly quit as London correspondent for the Herald Tribune. That was generally regarded as a very choice job in the newspaper business. Portis quit cold one day, just like that, without a warning.” And, after writing his first two novels, Portis “actually went on to live out the fantasy,” Wolfe says. “Portis did it in a way that was so much like the way it happens in the dream, it was unbelievable. …He sold both books to the movies…He made a fortune…A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was. Which is to say that the old dream, The Novel, has never died.”

Knowing Portis refused most interviews, I decided to increase my chances of a response by asking the most pressing question I had: why, after six years as a reporter, did he decide to try writing novels for a living? I was curious about what factors went into his decision to write fiction, what his hopes were, his career concerns or frustrations with reporting, and what effect, if any, that era of literary publishing (at the dawn of the “new journalism”) had on his thinking. The most detailed treatment of the subject appeared in a rare Q&A Portis gave to the University of Arkansas in 2001. In it, he makes his decision seem simple: “As I say, the Tribune people had always treated me very well, but I wanted to try my hand at fiction, so I gave notice and went home.” He just decided to try his hand and went? Just like that? No way, I thought, rereading that; nothing is that simple.

Three months later, the literary agency kindly sent me Portis’s response to my question. It read: “I simply wanted to try my hand at fiction, and if it hadn’t worked out I would have gone back to journalism.”

I laughed out loud reading that: “try my hand at fiction.” He’d used nearly the exact same phrase in that 2001 interview. It was the phrase I was trying to get away from by emailing him. Oh well. Like everything he wrote, even his one-line email amused me. His mystery remained intact.

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