SEPTEMBER 2, 2011
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 for prolific historians who too readily accepted exaggerated and unauthentic versions as true statements?
Who can wonder that I then resolved that, “When I grow to be a woman I shall tell the story of my party so clearly that no one can doubt its truth”?
Eliza P. Donner Houghton
Los Angeles, California,
Thus, Mattie Ross’s incongruous ranging between bitter defense — “People do not give it credence […] although I will say that it did not happen everyday” — and pure, saccharine, bad writing:
Little did Papa realize that morning that he was never to see or hold us again, nor would he ever again harken to the meadowlarks of Yell County trilling a joyous anthem to spring.
True Grit is marketed as a revenge tale, and it is, but the narrator’s revenge is more immediately directed not at the man who killed her father but at one Lucille Biggers Langford, who makes false statements “in her Yell County Yesterdays” about Mattie’s father. Mattie, settling a score with Lucillle, is compelled to wrestle her “account” away from the town historian / gossip columnist, peppering her narrative with scare quotes — “papa was not wounded in that ‘scrap.”‘ These little scraps are culled, one can only guess, from Ms. Langford’s Yesterdays. “I think I am in a position,” Mattie insists, “to know the facts.” More than gold pieces and ponies, stolen stories are what’s at stake here.
As one Amazon reviewer of Eliza Donner’s Expedition frames the problem: “Given her tender age, most of the information […] is based upon the recollections of other survivors, including those of her older sisters,” and the reviewer’s main beef with her account is that it “seems to be subjectively sanitized.” In other words, edited heavily for content.
Not to mention that if you have to call a thing “True” it’s probably not. So even as the jacket copy tells us that True Grit is “eccentric, cool, straight, and unflinching, like Mattie herself,” at some point we must concede to the fact that her narrative is so unreliable it’s not even funny. And I mean that literally. Like the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn playing shoot-the-biscuit-in-the-air, the straighter “Mattie Ross from Near Dardanelle” attempts to shoot, the more she misses. And the more inaccessible her character becomes. And the more obscure, in every sense, Portis remains. Mattie’s tragic flaw is that she’s presumed to be able to tell her own harrowing tale, and with one hand, no less. To borrow a phrase elsewhere from Portis, Mattie’s account is “swollen with pride, all bloated up like a dog’s tick with blood.” (This is a character in Gringos reminding a hippie of the story of Nebuchadnezzar.)
But that’s the biggest gag in any Portis novel: someone attempting to write a book, or solve some puzzle, or even try to know anything in general. Surely, there is no finer example than the following scene from Dog of the South, in which Dr. Reo Symes (a traveling salesman and former medical practitioner) expresses to Ray Midge his “great regret” that he never met John Selmer Dix, M.A., author of With Wings As Eagles — the “greatest writer who ever lived,” the one who, in Symes’s estimation, “puts Shakespeare in the shithouse”:
“He died broke in a railroad hotel in Tulsa. The last thing he saw from his window is anybody’s guess. They never found his trunk, you know. He had a big tin trunk that was all bound up with wires and ropes and belts and straps, and he took it with him everywhere. They never found it. Nobody knows what happened to it. Nobody even knows what was in the trunk.”
“Well, his clothes, don’t you think?”
“No, he didn’t have any clothes to speak of. No change of clothes. His famous slippers, of course.”
“His correspondence maybe.”
“He burned all letters unread. I don’t want to hear any more of your guesses. Do you think you’re going to hit on the answer right off? Smarter people than you have been studying this problem for years.”
Words that are not lost on me as I attempt to understand, with the few resources available, Charles Portis the person. Words not lost as I sit down to write anything, but especially this — an attempt to peer at a brilliant, funny, but altogether unknown-to-the-public author. As I wonder what he sees from his Arkansas window at night before bed, whether he uses slippers, and, if so, to whom this footwear would be famous. What he might and might not care to read, if he were to read this.
“Writing is hard,” says Jimmy Burns, narrator of Gringos, “it’s a form of punishment in school, and rightly so — and I stood paralyzed before all the ways this simple message might be put.” Burns’s task is to ghostwrite a last will and testament, which his friend, Alma Kobold, will then sign. Mine is this: however wrong in my guesses, to give readers every assurance that True Grit is yet not apocryphal; that that experiment in ventriloquism, Mattie’s less-than-forthright account, is an integral part of Portis’s five books; that, all told, they comprise a single, complete work — call it a Pentateuch — not culminating in Gringos, his last novel chronologically, but going on forever, like an unfilmable (unless by Charlie Kaufman) Möbius strip.
Or a song so incredibly sad, and so long, that you just want to die laughing.
It begins and ends with Norwood. Published in 1966, two years before True Grit, it’s a novel about a guitar-playing grease monkey, a Lefty Frizzell fan and Louisiana Hayride hopeful (in certain locution, a “bumpkin”), who returns from service to Ralph, Texas, on a “hardship discharge” to care for his slow-witted sister — “in many ways, she was like a great big baby” — after their father dies. But let me back up here just a bit.
That same year, Portis wrote a colorful, in-depth report on “The New Sound from Nashville” for the Saturday Evening Post, where serialized versions of Norwood and True Grit would later appear. It’s a nice supplement to the novels, and, given the “very active jukeboxes and shaky tables” he describes, you get the feeling this isn’t a piece anybody had to twist Portis’s arm to write:
On Saturday nights, performers on the Grand Ole Opry step out the stage door and cross an alley and go in the back door of Tootsies to get aholt of themselves between sets with some refreshing suds. Songwriters — “cleffers,” as the trade mags say — sit around and chat and wait for artistic revelations. Deals are closed here. New, strange guitar licks are conceived.
But be careful forming quick opinions, he suggests, as this is “the milieu of commercial country music, the Southern honky-tonk. Sometimes it’s called ‘hillbilly music,’ which is only half-accurate because the southern lowlanders have contributed just as much as the hill folks.” Portis also reveals that not even ten percent of the audience is from anywhere near Nashville, Tennessee. “Middle-class Nashvillians,” he writes, “anxious lest they be mistaken for rubes, are quick to inform the visitor that they have never attended the show. It is not for them, this hoe-down.”
Half exposé, half-hoe-down celebration, this article appeared in The Post not so long after Portis left The Herald Tribune, where he had covered the Civil Rights Movement and worked beside the slick New York, New Journalists Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin (though in a rare, candid, and fairly rambling 1991 interview with Roy Reed, also of the Trib, Portis says he only met Breslin once, and Reed says he called Breslin out on his methods, which were confabulatory, or, in other words, the stuff of New Journalism and fiction). So the ex-reporter from Arkansas likely has a clear sense of social justice, but also a personal connection to characters viewed by much of the reading world — then, and now — as backwoods or backwater. That is, as certifiably Other. That sympathy is plain by the end of “The New Sound”; after tallying up the numbers of those recently hit with “disaster and sudden death” — Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, Jack Anglin, Texas Ruby, and Gentleman Jim Reeves — Portis concludes:
It’s not an easy life at all. There’s fame in it, of a sort, and money, and that keeps a lot of them going. But there’s some deeper feeling too that keeps them out on the road, with a night here, and a night there, and a long drive in between, singing their songs, some trash, some gold, about hearts and wrecks and teardrops. They can’t talk about those things, so they sing them.
As I said, one of the great supplementary materials of the Portis Pentateuch, and I recommend locating an original copy, to see it, as your scholar of archaeology would say, in situ.
In Odessa, Ukraine (or is it Texas?), there’s a saying that goes, “There is a little joke in every joke,” and this is true for Portis. Though his novels contain many gags, they trade in matters dead serious — one reason I dare any book reviewer to holler “shit-kicker” at Norwood Pratt and keep moving.
Norwood is often summarized as a story about a big dumb ex-Marine who sets off for the Big Apple with a guitar on his back to retrieve seventy dollars from another Marine, but that’s a ruse. The eponymous character wants to flee his home in Ralph, Texas, because his sister no longer needs him. After urging Vernell to take a waitressing job, even instructing her in the simplicity of taking orders — “He may want some tea, too. All right, put a big T under the number two” — we learn that the gig “worked out too well. Money and position went to Vernell’s head.” First, Vernell brings home “choice downtown gossip” and makes “familiar references to undertakers and Ford dealers,” and the next thing you know, “with absolutely no warning,” she marries “a disabled veteran named Bill Bird” — an “older man” who has “drifted into Ralph for no very clear reason after being discharged from the VA hospital in Dallas.” She takes to Bill for his “thoughtful air and his scholarship,” and so begins Portis’s preoccupation with the Nebuchadnezzar type, or with the hilarious effects, unobserved by the braggart, of having the gall to presume self-possession.
Bill Bird tapped the newspaper with his pipe. “I was reading an interesting little piece there in the Grit. A retired high school band director in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has taught his fox terrier to play ‘Springtime in the Rockies’ on the mouth harp. He holds it on with a little wire collar device. Like this.”
“Well, I’ll be,” said Vernell. “A dog playing songs. I’d like to see that. I bet that’s cute.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” said Bill Bird. “I mean I suppose it is cute, but it’s more than that. It goes to show that animals are a lot smarter than people think. I honestly believe that one day we may be able to talk to them. By that I mean communicate in some fashion. There’s a lot of interesting research going on in that field.”
“What else can he sing, that dog?”
“Well, it doesn’t say. It just says he is limited to a few simple melodies because of his small lungs. Now he doesn’t sing, Vernell. He plays these songs on a mouth organ. A harmonica. His name is Tommy.”
“I’d like to hear that scamp play. They ought to put him on television sometime.”
Bill Bird hummed the opening of “Springtime in the Rockies” and thought about it for a minute. “That’s not exactly a simple tune, you know. I think it represents a pretty amazing range for a dog.”
“You must know something about every single subject in the world, Bill. Somebody could just sit here and write a book just listening to you.”
“Oh I don’t know about that, Vernell. I will admit this: I have always been curious about things. The world about me. Like most of your scientists, I am interested in the why of things, and not just the what. Sometimes I think I might have been happier if I didn’t have such a searching mind.”
Little doubt, it seems, that the reader of Norwood knows this person. Or is this person, and doesn’t know it, but can nevertheless plainly see why Norwood needs to get the hell out of Ralph.
But that’s not the inciting moment. In fact, Norwood Pratt makes no move, ever, unless something gets put into writing. After Vernell learns all-too-well to write up orders, after Bill Bird “filled up the cabinet with dozens of little bottles with typing on them, crowding Norwood’s shaving gear out and onto the windowsill,” Norwood leaves the house to watch the girls at the skating rink where he meets a man who hands him a brochure: a “non-cancellable guaranteed renewable” policy. The insurance salesman is also “in mobile homes and coin-operated machines.” And more importantly, for someone who wants to recover 70 bucks, the stranger runs “a debt-collection agency in Texarkana.” All of which falls on deaf ears until the man tells Norwood his name:
“You’re not Grady Fring the Kredit King?”
“I am indeed.”
“No reasonable offer refused.”
“The very same.”
“You can’t convince Grady your credit is bad.”
And here Grady has him. Norwood has seen the advertising copy on the wall — knows it by heart! — and it’s all the credit Fring needs to get him to drive two stolen cars across the country. Ever after, the “big dumb peckerwood sumbitch,” as one of Norwood’s disgruntled traveling companions will call him, is in tension with the con artist, the smooth-talking know-it-all — the writer.
Norwood opens with the young Marine receiving his walking papers, an act that involves a string of professionals working something out: When the question of “What’s going to happen to Vernell?” is posed to Brother Humphries, the chaplain replies with “a thoughtful, ‘I don’t know. I’m trying to work something out.'” And then it isn’t until Brother Humphries talks to “a man in Texarkana who worked something out with the Red Cross man at Camp Pendleton” who “worked it out with the major who handled hardship discharges” that Norwood Pratt is free to go. Portis, too — once he’s worked out a few things. As the dog playing “Springtime in the Rockies” on the mouth harp will tell you, it’s not exactly a simple tune.
The last public sighting of Charles Portis was at the Oxford American Gala in Spring 2010, receiving an award in a tuxedo one minute, and heading for his pickup truck in a windbreaker and blue jeans shortly after. But if you want to see Portis as a kid, or a part of him, “Combinations of Jacksons,” published in The Atlantic in 1999, is required reading. In this brief memoir (or so-called — we’ll just have to trust him), Portis tells of the “underwater breathing contortions” he would perform as a child in Smackover Creek, in order to give his imagined “pursuing enemies the slip”:
The trick looked simple enough in the movie serials, which pulled me along from one Saturday to the next with such chapter titles as “Fangs of Doom!” and “In the Scorpion’s Lair!” First you cut a reed. You put one end of the reed in your mouth and lay face up, very still, on the bottom of a shallow stream. The other end was projected above the surface of the stream, and through this hollow shaft, as you lay buried alive in water, you breathed.
He tells of the need to “expose a small but conspicuous hand above the surface of the water to keep [the bamboo tube] upright.” Which is very cute — I can see it now — like a terrier behind a harmonica. But of deeper significance, perhaps, is the glimpse Portis offers of his real family members — mostly the men, the Jacksons, but I’m more interested in the women, about whom, even in this great age of information, we know precious little. Of his usually “placid” mother, Portis writes, “In any kind of refined-foot contest, she said, she would pit her Waddell-Fielding-Arkansas feet against all comers with Portis-Poole-Alabama feet.” Hers were proud feet, then — better feet, perhaps, than Portis’s father’s.
And then there’s his sister, who, when Portis was “younger and in her keeping,” would take him “against his will” to certain films he had no care for. After delighting in the dual nature of the phrase, “picture show” — “The tale unfolding on the screen was a picture show, and the theater building itself was also a picture show. El Dorado had four” — Portis complains of being dragged to “the quiet Rialto, where an attentive and well-mannered audience remained seated:
In these stories there would be some strange men scheming against each other and beating each other’s brains out to see who got to marry Bette Davis, or it might be Joan Crawford. The winning suitor would get to spend every minute of the rest of his life in the company of a harridan. I was soon asleep.
Of the more run-down venues he preferred, he writes:
No rats, though, in disgusting numbers, pattering about underfoot at the Star, as was widely believed. The story was kept alive by my fastidious older sister (Star = rats at play) and others like her who had never set foot in the place.
So. Another storyteller in the family.
But the pictures the young Portis was drawn to, what was “much on [his] mind in those days,” were the kinds found in “the pulp pages of ‘funny books,’ known as comic books in other parts of the country.” He writes,
Both names were misleading for the kind I liked, the ones featuring costumed vigilantes […]. Under any name the books were quite a bargain early on, at sixty-four pages in color for a dime. Or a kind of color. The palette was limited; Superman had blue hair.
This passage recalls a bizarre scene toward the end of Norwood, when Norwood and his new sweetheart Rita Lee are waiting for a bus to Memphis. As Edmund Ratner, midget and ex-circus freak, writes letters “on some thick blue notepaper,” Rita and Norwood take turns reading “confession magazines and comic books”:
She read about a miser duck called Uncle Scrooge, and his young duck nephews, whose adventures took place in a city where all the bystanders, the figures on the street, were anthropoid dogs walking erect. Norwood read about Superman…
Did you ever see that dude on television? he said.
Rita looked up with annoyance from her duck book. “Who?”
“Yeah, and I know what you’re going to say, he killed himself, the one that played Superman.”
“It looks all right when you’re reading it. I didn’t believe it on television.”
“You’re not supposed to really believe it.”
“You’re supposed to believe it a little bit. I didn’t believe none of it.”
Here it is difficult to tell whether Norwood is responding to George Reeves’s suicide — the bizarre and much-debated circumstances surrounding his death — or to Reeves’s acting skills. Or perhaps he is simply commenting on books, in general, being better as books. Or none of the above.
Later, on the bus, Rita says, “What we ought to do is get us some Western outfits that would be just alike except mine would be for a girl. You see, they would match.” Inexplicably, this seems to upset Norwood, and we’re told: “That night a suicidal owl flew into the windshield but didn’t break it and later they saw a house or a barn burning in an open field. No one seemed to be around to put it out.”
What is Portis working out? I don’t know. Or maybe I have an idea, but can’t say. In the same way Norwood “doesn’t know” when Rita asks him what his “singing style is like.” “Yes you do,” she says. “Who do you sing like?
“Have you ever heard Lefty Frizzell sing ‘I Love You a Thousand Ways’?”
“No,” she said, “I’ve never even heard of Lefty Frizzell.”
“I don’t guess I can explain it then,” he says.
So they turn their attention to a scar on the back of Norwood’s neck, from having fallen off a water truck in North Korea.
In “Combinations of Jacksons,” Portis describes the utter failure and “childishness” of his “underwater breathing experiments”: “As I lay there more or less supine on the creekbed,” he writes, “struggling to breathe and to hold my upper body down, then my telltale feet would rise. Feet unfettered float, for all their bones, and when toes break the surface and bob about, they will catch the eye of the dullest observer.”
Which makes a dull observer wonder: were these feet more Portis, or more Waddell-Fielding?
As Mattie Ross says at the end of Grit: “People like to talk.” Given this, it makes both perfect sense and none at all that we know virtually nothing about Charles Portis. We know he was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1933 three days after Christmas. We know his parents were Alice Waddell and Samuel Palmer Portis, that there were three other children, and that a few years before graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a degree in journalism, he served in the Korean War. Glaringly absent from this outline, however, is whether the author himself has ever married or had any children of his own. One is left to assume that he has not. Baird Shuman nearly broaches the issue in the anthology Great American Writers: Twentieth Century, saying, “It is surely significant that each of Portis’s novels explores in some respect the nature of marriage and committed relationships.” But Shuman leaves it at that. Perhaps he sensed what the presumably unmarried septuagenarian might say: “It is nobody’s business if I am married or not married. I care nothing for what they say. I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to.” Mattie’s words, but the narrator of True Grit has something here: it’s nobody’s business.
But even if Portis has, like John Selmer Dix, burned all of his correspondence, he has left the gossipers one letter, one that seems to have gone unread. After the title page of Norwood is a page bearing the smallest of dedications:
It’s a mystery that begs the question: for whom was Charles Portis writing? Who was or is his ideal reader? Perhaps “A” stands for “Author” (after all, he’s a writer’s writer), or “Arkansas,” or for an even wider base than that: maybe “A” stands for “All” who care to read him. In some ways I think each of these is true, but, then again, not entirely…
In that rare, lengthy, and oft-quoted interview to which Portis relented in 1991, he says that the inspiration for True Grit, his second novel, came from working in Fayetteville at the Northwest Arkansas Times. He says, “I edited the country correspondence from these lady stringers,” — a designation you will find nowhere but in connection with Portis’s name all over the web — women whose
handwriting was good and clear. Much better than mine. Their writing, too, for that matter. From those who weren’t self-conscious about it. Those who hadn’t taken some writing course. My job was to edit out all the life and charm from these homely reports. Some fine old country expression, or a nice turn of phrase — out they went. We probably thought we were doing the readers a favor.
Certainly this accounts for Portis’s sensitivity to “colorful” women, and lends us a modicum of insight into the question of why he would attempt such an experiment — to reach across time and gender, to step outside of his own age and mental and physical experience, and tell the story of one lonely Other. But it doesn’t fully explain who or what he’s after in the four other novels that grapple with the same themes. Certainly it doesn’t explain who pursues him. In the same interview, Roy Reed asks Portis about his family (towards the end, as if Reed knows better): “There are three of you boys and one girl, right?”
“Yes,” Portis says. “My sister was the oldest. I was two years younger. She died in 1958.” Her name was “Alice Kate,” he says, “which she didn’t like. She preferred ‘Aleece,’ spelled A-L-I-E-C-E. But I think that was partly to prevent confusion with my mother, who was also Alice.”
Reed then asks, “She died of what?” and Portis responds, “A cerebral hemorrhage. She was just twenty-eight. Married and with two small sons.” Portis then says that their father “never really got over it. She was his favorite. She had a very quick intelligence.” And the matter is dropped.
Just knowing what we know of people, we have to wonder what impact this had on the 26-year-old man. Especially given the time. Aliece Portis, the one who used to drag her little brother (who was not so far behind her in age) to the picture show, who invented zany stories about the Star Theater and spread them around town, died the year Portis graduated from college – a major event she may or may not have been there to witness — and only a few years after he returned from war. Portis came from “a family of talkers,” he says (i.e., not writers), but earned himself a degree in journalism, or some wobbly “position to know the facts.” Which might — and this is pure conjecture — promote a sense of guilt. Whether it’s the guilt of the living, or of being a writer, or of any kind of success at all, a certain anxiety pervades his novels. Nevertheless, whenever Portis talks, whatever he says, it can’t be just one quirky man alone in a vacuum; his is a family grammar. His influence, necessarily, is what is familiar, what is known. As well as what, after a certain point, cannot ever be known.
So Portis eludes us. If he is oddly preoccupied with identity, with secret societies and false information, Masters of Atlantis is where it all comes to a cone-shaped head. Ron Rosenbaum covered the book fairly extensively in “Our Least Known Great Writer” in Esquire, but the first scene of this over-the-top satire bears repeating:
[Lamar Jimmerson] was walking about Chaumont one night with his hands in his pockets when he was approached by a dark bowlegged man who offered to trade a small book for two packages of Old Gold cigarettes. The book had to do with the interpretation of dreams. Corporal Jimmerson did not smoke, nor did he have any interest in such a book, but he felt sorry for the ragged fellow and so treated him to a good supper at the Hotel Davos.
The man wept, overcome with gratitude. He said his name was Nick and that he was an Albanian refugee from Turkey. After supper he revealed that his real name was Mike and that he was actually a Greek from Alexandria, Egypt. The dream book was worthless, he said, full of extravagant lies, and he apologized for imposing in such a way on the young soldier. […]
Perhaps he could repay the kindness in another way. He had another book. This one, the Codex Pappus, contained the secret wisdom of Atlantis. He could not let the book out of his hands, but, as an Adept in the Gnomon Society, he was permitted to show it to outsiders or “Perfect Strangers,” who gave some promise of becoming Gnomons. Lamar, who was himself an Entered Apprentice in the Blue Lodge of the Freemasons, expressed keen interest.
It was a little gray book, or booklet, hand lettered in Greek. There were several pages given over to curious diagrams and geometric figures, mostly cones and triangles. Mike explained that this was not, of course, the original script.
And the Gnomons, for all their conical headgear and secret handshakes, contra their name, prove to know nothing, to be masters of little, to possess no usable secrets, no wisdom. Much like Portis’s books. Or so he implies.
In Dog of the South, we see the same preoccupation with pseudonyms played out over a series of Nabokovian or Quilty-like moves. Guy Dupree has taken Ray Midge’s Ford Torino and his wife Norma — along with his credit card; Dupree, who once worked on the same copy desk at the same paper as Midge, thoroughly compromises the protagonist’s credibility as he heads for Mexico, leaving in his wake a trail of hotel receipts and threatening letters to the president signed “Think Again” and “Hoecake Scarfer” and “JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy.” Even still, Midge can’t help but admit that the man behind the names “had once been a funny fellow”:
Dupree could always make me laugh when he did a thing called The Electric Man. As The Electric Man or The Mud Man he could make anyone laugh. And sometimes he would go out one door and come in at another one, as though he had just arrived, having moved very quickly in concealment between the two points. It wasn’t so funny the first time — but he would keep doing it!
This funny man, you’ll note, is funny in the way Portis is funny, performing the switcheroo, the gag of “this or that” — the doppelganger writer — the impossibility of being either an absolute villain or hero. It isn’t funny in itself, but he keeps doing it! Kind of like the prolonged gags in Masters, kind of like Mattie Ross’s account and that unbelievably stilted voice. And like Norwood Pratt, Ray Midge follows the writing. In the end, when Norma becomes “restless again,” he makes no attempts to follow; no credit card receipts inscribe his course. Such are the Portis character’s walking papers.
Is Charles Portis ashamed to have written True Grit? The real question is: should we cut off an author’s limb to spite his body? If there is any shame here, it’s that so many have failed to see the work in context. Portis may be speaking to this in a short story he wrote for The Atlantic in 1996 titled “I Don’t Talk Service No More.” In it, another of his veterans tells us “you can get into the library at night easy enough” and “make all the long-distance calls you want to if you have the keys, and smoke all the cigarettes you want to, as long as you open a window.” He’s in a psych ward making calls, talking service to anyone who’ll listen, and, except for the window, every wall is padded with a sad, familiar thing: “three walls of paperback Westerns,” he says. Neap of the Fox Company Raid is on the other line:
Neap said, “I don’t talk service no more,” but he didn’t hang up on me. Sometimes they do […] I sit here in the dark at the library desk smoking my Camels and I think they sit in the dark too, on the edges of their beds with their bare feet on the floor.
Sounds awful, but Portis writes, “It’s not so bad here if you have the keys. For a long time I didn’t have the keys.”
All of which, for me, conjures the (near) impossibility of talking dogs — or of a kid hiding under the covers, wet from the swamp, holding a bamboo breathing tube. “Where are your slippers?” you want to ask him. “Did you brush your teeth?” But he doesn’t respond. Now he’s cradling a telephone, humming into the receiver, a little off key. I won’t give it away, but Gringos is where Portis works it all out. Or at least where you know that things are not so bad. Contact is made. When a normally tight-lipped UFO-chaser wants to tell Jimmy Burns about an intense alien encounter, Jimmy allows him that: he tells us, “You must let a haunted man make his report.” One reviewer has complained that the novel “goes out with a whimper,” and this is true. It ends with Jimmy remembering “My Darling Clementine.”
You are lost and gone forever…
We can’t talk about these things, so we sing them.