Phan Loc Bayou Lucerne (detail) © Cay Sehnert 2005 All Rights Reserved
People will not give it credence that the best-selling author of True Grit and four lesser-known books would go off and leave the business for good, that he would abandon his readership to avenge some part of his blood, but that is what's happened. It has been twenty years since the author going by the name of Charles Portis published his last book.
Of course, I'm mimicking Mattie Ross in the opening lines of the famous 1968 western, grafting the heroine's words about avenging her father's death onto my own, but the Portis write-up is itself a genre full of grafts and repetitions: he's a "writer's writer," a reclusive "cult novelist" with an "oddball" cast of characters running the gamut from outlaws, shit-kickers, and wizards, to loners, rejects, geezers, and misfits, not least of which is "the world's smallest perfect man" (a midget!), but also not forgetting the fortune-telling Joann, a "college-educated chicken." In short, a lot that signifies a terrific "quirkiness" on the part of both author and reviewer. More erudite folk have compared him to Twain and O'Connor, to Gogol and Chekhov (for who could deny that in a swamp somewhere in America's south is a portal to Russia?). And it's not a bad question: how to prove allegiance to Portis while shrinking the sum of his parts into a single essay. Thankfully, it's been done, by Ron Rosenbaum, Roy Blount Jr., Donna Tartt, and Ed Park, among others.
What has also been done, what's almost frightening, is that since the Coen Brothers remade True Grit, we seem to be living in a post-Portis society. If Ron Rosenbaum, while rejecting out-of-hand any genius in the popular Grit, was responsible for getting Norwood (1966), Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos (1991) back into print, then the Coens are responsible for returning the author to 1969, where he stands camera left, just behind the figure playing the one-eyed marshal, Rooster Cogburn.
It's been suggested that Portis is or ought to be ashamed to have written True Grit, and maybe he is, but he didn't write it, actually, not quite. He channeled an unmarried septuagenarian named Mattie Ross who reaches into her memory and conjures a vision of herself at fourteen, of the winter of 1873 when The Coward Tom Chaney murdered her father and stole his ponies and she tumbled into a snake pit and lost an arm, and she writes this "true account," which, in pioneer days and after, was well-trod terrain, a known genre. And how might this character imagine such a tale ought to sound? Probably it would read something like The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate by Eliza Poor Donner Houghton (who was four at the time of the infamous ordeal). Coincidentally, as Overlook Press releases a new edition of True Grit, this month marks the centennial anniversary of Eliza's foreword to her account, in which she asks,
Who better than survivors knew the heart-rending circumstances of life and death in those mountain camps? Yet who can wonder that tenderest recollections and keenest heartaches [...] left opportunities for false and sensational details to be spread by morbid collectors of food for excitable brains, and f...