True Grit

"The Mayas," wrote Charles Portis in his 1991 novel Gringos, "had a ceremonial year of 260 days called a tzolkin, and then they had one of 360 days called a tun, and finally there was the haab of 365 days . . . [It] was simply a tun, plus five nameless days of dread and suspended activity . . . corresponding somewhat to our dead week between Christmas and New Year's Day."

 

Should you need an undertaking to liven up that dead week, read Portis's five novels, one of which has just been resurrected for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen. True Grit, released on December 22 by Paramount Pictures, is the second adaptation of Portis's 1968 novel; the 1969 version earned John Wayne his only Academy Award (Best Actor) in the role of sozzled, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn.

 

True Grit is Portis's best-known work, which may account for its being least loved by his proprietary, slightly unhinged fans. He has counted such greats as Walker Percy, Roald Dahl, and Larry McMurtry among his partisans, but for sheer grab-you-by-the-collar evangelism, the journalist Ron Rosenbaum beats all comers. In 1998, Rosenbaum wrote a panegyric on Portis for Esquire, which convinced the Overlook Press to republish his stack of neglected classics. For that we are in Rosenbaum's debt.

 

But Rosenbaum's tack involved an apology of sorts for True Grit. It wasn't that he thought "there's anything wrong with it in itself." He only worried that its popularity, or perhaps its association with the Duke, would "throw [readers] off the scent of Portis's greatness."

 

Yes, True Grit would seem to be the squarest of Portis's books, a western novel with an accessibly linear plot. It is, in superficial ways, his least Portis-like. Its characters are fewer and less grotesque, its comedy far less antic, and its story the least shaggy-dog. How can it hope to compete with two deranged, hilarious road novels (1966's Norwood and 1979's The Dog of the South), an ingenious parody of secret societies (1985's Masters of Atlantis), and a hard-boiled novel about Yucatán archaeology, ufologists, and a bendo expatriate community (Gringos)?

 

The answer, which I hope will meet with Rosenbaum's approval, is that there's no dead horse into which Portis's talent couldn't beat new life.

 

Portis is himself something of an oddity. He is a recluse, and not in an attention-grabbing way; unlike Thomas Pynchon, he has never played himself in disguise on "The Simpsons." He is a proud Arkansan. (Archibald Yell, the state's second governor and a hero of the Mexican War, is alluded to in The Dog of the South; Yell County is the home of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, the stubborn, Bible-quoting heroine of True Grit.) He is also an ex-Marine and Korean War vet, and a former newspaperman. According to John Brummett of the Arkansas News, who claims to "have had the privilege of inhabiting a bar stool next to his a time or two," Portis's approach to literature is simple: "[Y]ou gotta have a story."

 

True Grit has a story so simple that it would read like a folktale were it not for the unmistakable voice of Mattie Ross. "People do not give it credence," relates the spinster Ross, looking back, "that a fourteen year-old girl could leave home and go off in the 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."

 

Mattie's father had been killed by one of his tenant farmers, a "coward going by the name of Tom Chaney," for intervening in a fight. Chaney fled to the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, beyond the interest of the law, and joined the gang of outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper. So Mattie traveled to the scene of the crime, a boarding house in Fort Smith, and set about hiring a man with "true grit"—the aforementioned Rooster Cogburn—as her instrument of terrestrial vengeance. "The wicked flee when none pursueth," her older self explains, by way of Proverbs.

 

Much of True Grit's humor comes from the severity, the biblical humorlessness, of its elderly narrator and her younger self, each an anachronism in her own or any time. There is no man she won't face down. In keeping with the book's amusing strain of Arkansan chauvinism, she replies icily to a threat from the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, her second sidekick-to-be: "Put a hand to me and you will answer for it. You are from Texas and ignorant of our ways but the good people of Arkansas do not go easy on men who abuse women and children." Mattie's steely manner sends him "clanking away in all his Texas trappings."

 

Those for whom the "western" aspect of True Grit is most important will be awed by Rooster, who is both larger than life and lower than dirt. Unlike those two Hollywood dandies John Wayne and Jeff Bridges, Portis's Rooster doesn't wear an eyepatch ("a little crescent of white showed at the bottom" of his dead eye). By the hanging judge Isaac Parker's records, Rooster kills roughly six men a year as a U.S. Marshal. But he is also an overweight drunk who dwells in the back of a Chinese grocery store with a cat named General Sterling Price. He doesn't cotton to remarks about his disability:

MR. COGBURN: I had to shoot him in self-defense last April in the Going Snake Disrict of the Cherokee Nation.
MR. GOUDY: How did that come about?
MR. COGBURN: I was trying to serve a warrant on him for selling ardent spirits to the Cherokees. It was not the first one. He come at me with a kingbolt and said, "Rooster, I am going to punch that other eye out." I defended myself.

It fares no better for the fellow who calls him a "one-eyed fat man."

 

It would have been easy to get laughs from the absurdity of a headstrong girl bending a U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger to her will. Portis manages something more difficult, which is persuading the reader to accept a world in which this is both absurd and, maybe just this once, believable. When Mattie says of her father that he was "the gentlest, most honorable man who ever lived," she is also wondering at the fact that she "did not get [her] mean streak from him." From where, then—and whence her grit? Is courage born or made, felt or performed?

 

If the Coen Brothers have been faithful in their adaptation, it will be the second movie this season to end with a crevasse and an amputated arm. There are few coincidences in Hollywood, but one wishes it were something in the ether, some impulse to rediscover the frontier pluck of our forebears. Of course, were it an impulse to rediscover Charles Portis, we'd be headed in the right direction. He's no mere "cult writer." Like the finest comic writers, his understanding that most things are ridiculous lends a special gravity to the things he knows are not. This time, he won't be forgotten.

 

Comments
by poolhall on ‎07-12-2011 04:25 PM

I loved the film.  I had to read the book and now I'm listening to the audiobook version of True Grit.  Donna Tartt does a great job as the reader.

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