The next Top Ten Tuesday subject is to list the Top Ten older books you don’t want people to forget about. I’m putting together what I hope will be an interesting list for people to read, but in doing so, I found myself focusing in on one author in particular. No one would think True Grit, Charles Portis’ second novel, is in much danger of being forgotten. While that might be true for the novel, Portis himself tends to be omitted from lists of great American authors, which is beyond a shame.
Portis began his career as a journalist for the revered New York Herald Tribune, the same crucible which produced Tom Wolfe and other practitioners of “New Journalism,” a movement he claimed no part of regardless of how representative he was of it. He left journalism in the late Sixties to pursue writing, and produced five incredible novels between 1966 and 1991. You could say at that point he stepped out of the limelight in much the same way Salinger did, but that would presume he was “in” to begin with. The truth is he’s been more of a cult novelist, beloved by the few who know him well, completely unknown to nearly everyone else.
Like many of his fans, the first one of his books I read was True Grit. It was on our bookshelf when I was growing up, a paperback tie-in from the release of the John Wayne movie my dad had purchased years ago. I’m not sure if he read it or, if he did, whether or not he remembered much about it. But I had heard Jonathan Lethem praise how Portis had written Mattie Ross. I have this tendency once I read everything I can by an author, to seek out other books praised by those authors, normally expecting their favorite writing will contain some of the DNA that draws me to that author’s output. I get burned by this a lot, and this was no exception, as Charles Portis is nothing like Jonathan Lethem. Not to knock Lethem, but Portis is exponentially better.
What makes Mattie Ross so exceptional is she, as a narrator, is an old woman remembering herself as a child. From this perspective she tells her story with the dignity and wisdom of her age, while still viscerally remembering her emotions as a child. In part this is because as a child she was an “old soul,” but beyond that it is because the story she tells is the moment the red hot steel she was forged from is plunged into cooling water, defining her for the rest of her life. If you’ve seen the movie, nearly every event and line of dialogue, save a scant few (the strange scene with the dentist in the woods), is Charles Portis.
After reading this book, I searched out the rest of his writing, which was difficult because a lot of it was out of print or rarely stocked. It took a while, but I eventually collected the rest of his books. Norwood stands out to me as exemplary. It’s a simple story, of a young man travelling to and from New York. The journey, however, introduces him to an array of strange and fascinating characters, such as Grady Fring the Kredit King and Edmund Ratner, the World’s smallest perfect fat man. I would also highly recommend Dog of the South, one of the funniest books I’ve read. Ray Midge, the narrator, is generally considered a thoroughly dull man, but the story he relates is hilarious. His last two books, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos, are wickedly funny as well, and enormously insightful into the foibles of humanity.
It sounds like hyperbole to rank an author anywhere close to Mark Twain. After all, he’s such a towering figure in literature, most authors look peaked and anemic in comparison. Charles Portis’ output is nowhere near Twain’s, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say he comes as close to Clemens as any author possibly could. He has the deft humor, the ability to turn a phrase. He also has the clear eye, that same ability to both show great empathy for those misused by others and the world, and to pass withering judgment on those who would misuse others.
Next week Escape Velocity will be released. This is a collection of articles, stories, and other writing, some of which hasn’t been published before. I’ve pre-ordered my copy, as this defines essential reading for me. I can’t recommend his books in stronger terms, and if you’re looking for forgotten authors to rediscover, Charles Portis is a great place to start.