Clearly, I needed to pull myself out of what John Bunyan called the Slough of Despond. But how? And then, like an answered prayer, the Post Office delivered a box from the Overlook Press containing six crisp paperbacks by Charles Portis.
Portis, who died in 2020, is best known for “True Grit,” the modern classic about 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who enlists a grizzled, one-eyed U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn to help her hunt down her father’s murderer. Two good movies are based on that book, but they only hint at the original’s wondrousness, grounded in the elderly Mattie’s steely, no-nonsense narrative voice: “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”
Though parts of the novel are comic, the book is ultimately as serious as “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (to which it is sometimes compared). As Mattie looks back in her last paragraph, she describes what the old increasingly feel, “Time just gets away from us,” before bringing the book to its plain-spoken but emotionally powerful close: “This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.”
Ardent admirers of “True Grit” include not just readers like you and me, but also writers as different as George Pelecanos, Roy Blount Jr. and Donna Tartt. When the book first appeared in 1968, the back cover carried a blurb from Roald Dahl proclaiming it the best work of fiction he had read since he couldn’t remember when. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” or John Williams’s “Stoner,” it is regularly pointed to as one of the world’s most artistically perfect novels.
And yet a number of learned Portis devotees actually prefer “Norwood,” or “The Dog of the South,” or “Masters of Atlantis” or “Gringos.” All four, I knew, were funny and touching, featuring wise simpletons, magnificent con artists and an abundance of down-home Texas and Arkansas characters with names such as Vernell or Tilmon. Though I come from Ohio, these were the same kind of jokey, hard-drinking and ultracompetent working-class people I grew up with and respected. Surely, some binge-reading of Portis’s other books would set me up for Thanksgiving?
In “Norwood,” first published in 1966, a 20-something auto mechanic from Ralph, Tex., travels to New York City to recover $70 owed to him by an old Army buddy. Before its end, Norwood encounters “the world’s smallest perfect fat man,” rescues “Joann the Wonder Hen” from her cage in a penny arcade, punches out the deliciously slimy Grady Fring, the Kredit King, and wins the heart of Rita Lee as they read comic books together on the long bus ride home.
It’s the language that enchants. Norwood peeks in at his local roller-skating rink: “The boys were skating fast, working hard at it, as though they were delivering important telegrams.” A Texas oil company sponsors an essay-writing contest on the theme “Communism in the National Council of Churches.” In Brooklyn, Norwood pauses outside an apartment building: “On the sidewalk in front of the place some shirtless Puerto Rican boys were roasting marshmallows over a smoldering mattress.” The irresistible Rita Lee tells him about a high school classmate who got a job in Manhattan as a secretary: “She was the FHA Charm Queen two years running. And smart? She didn’t know what a B was.”
Already I was feeling better.
In “The Dog of the South,” first published in 1979, the 26-year-old Ray Midge — a onetime newspaper copy editor, owner of over 400 volumes of military history, knowledgeable (like all Portis’s characters) about automobile engine noises — pursues his former friend Guy Dupree all the way from Little Rock, Ark., through Mexico to Belize. Dupree ran off with Midge’s wife, Norma, in Midge’s Ford Torino and our hero wants both back, especially the car.
En route, he meets Dr. Reo Symes, a disciple of John Selmer Dix, the author of “With Wings as Eagles,” an inspirational self-help manual, compared to which all other books are simply “foul grunting.” Having absorbed Dix’s crass, glad-handing maxims, Symes has tried every sort of flimflam — peddled birthstone rings and vibrating jowl straps door to door, sold velvet paintings and hi-lo shag carpet from the back of trucks, done considerable business in extra-wide shoes, fat-melting pills and unregistered securities. He’s also chased women, lost his medical license and gone broke numerous times. He now hopes to transform some Louisiana property into either an old-folks home called the City of Life or an amusement park named Jefferson Davis Land. Dr. Reo Symes is simply an out-and-out joy. As he confesses to Midge, whom he always calls Speed, “There is very little folly I have missed out on in my life.”
And have I mentioned Portis’s sly, double-edged similes? When a young hippie named Christine visits a hospital after a hurricane, she makes “a cheery progress from bed to bed, in the confident manner of a draft-dodging athlete signing autographs for mutilated soldiers.” Occasionally, too, sentences attain a fleeting, Nabokovian beauty: “We rounded a bend in the road and a cloud of pale blue butterflies appeared before us, blown in perhaps from another part of the world.”
By the time I finished “The Dog of the South,” it was time to write this piece, but I can still look forward to “Masters of Atlantis,” “Gringos” and the miscellaneous pieces in “Escape Velocity.” It’ll be a happy Thanksgiving after all.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.