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[whitespace] True Grit

Charles Portis' novels get a second shot with American readers

By Sophie Annan

FOUR of Charles Portis' novels are being reissued. Was that a resounding "Who?" Thought so. When casual readers know the name Portis at all, which is rare, it's usually as the author of True Grit.

But in certain cultish circles, Portis is known for his deadpan comic novels Norwood (1966), The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos (1991)--all being reissued by Overlook Press in attractive paperback editions. (What an appropriate publisher for such an overlooked, underrated writer--although chances are the folks at Overlook had something else in mind when they named their company.)

This is the man of whom humorist Roy Blount said, "The way I decided whether to marry my wife: I gave her Norwood and waited. And then I heard her laughing upstairs."

Esquire writer Ron Rosenbaum swears other writers consider Portis to be "perhaps the least-known great writer in America" and thinks he "will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a 20th-century Mark Twain."

Portis writes road stories that spend most of their time lost on the dusty detours, celebrating the unexpected and the absurd. Characters tell their life stories in non sequiturs. Come to think of it, their life stories are non sequiturs.

My favorite Portis piece is a '60s essay for the Los Angeles Times, in which the author goes camping in Baja California and is visited by the ghost of one of the early missionaries (possibly Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino, but don't take that to the bank) who quotes at length, with hilarious effect, from his diary of travels in that strange, desolate land.

That piece sent me on a Portis hunt, which turned up Norwood, a novel starring a hapless guy who sets off from Texas searching for a guy who absconded with $70, and winds up in New York. Then came True Grit. I was much too cool back then to touch anything associated with John Wayne, so I passed on this novel for years, and then found out I'd been missing a true comedy, a road story with a gutsy girl as protagonist.

When Gringos came out, I was living in Mexico. A neighbor once remarked of our little pueblo, "you could just write all this down and pass it off as fiction." This may be just what Portis did in this tale of neo-hippies in search of psychic happenings, archaeologists illegally unearthing Mayan tombs, and a quest for UFO-landing sites, all of them driving protag Jimmy Burns nuts. The novel is set in Yucatan, but his characters and their loopy concerns are the very same as those I ran into on the Pacific Coast and in the west central highlands. (This is the danger of knowing the territory--a novel can read like straight reporting.)

In The Dog of the South, hapless Ray Midge tries to track down his faithless wife through their credit-card bills, embarking on an odyssey from Arkansas through Mexico and Belize to Honduras, accompanied by the most inept con man in American literature.

Masters of Atlantis is an absurd journey into an America of misfits and True Believers--exemplary Portis. In it, a society dedicated to preserving the arcane wisdom of the lost city of Atlantis winds up in a momentous gathering at (what else?) a mobile home park in East Texas.

Truth or fiction? I'm betting pretty much truth. Arkansas-native Portis has worked as a reporter for several publications, including the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, and the New York Herald Tribune, which sent him to London as a correspondent. But journalism didn't take. Not enough colorful language is my guess.

We're all surrounded by goofiness; it takes the eye and the ear of a comic genius like Portis to recognize and record it.

Why hasn't he written more? Beats me. He's had a couple of autobiographical pieces in the Atlantic Monthly in the last few years about military service in Korea and growing up in WWII-era Arkansas. We can hope they're part of a longer work.

Maybe he just doesn't feel the need. Maybe he's rich. A state of Arkansas web site on "some of the country's most prominent people who were either born in the state or lived here at some time in their lives" mentions two incomes. One is WalMart's: when Sam Walton died in 1992, the chain's "annual sales surpassed $44 billion." The other is the $300,000 Portis received for the movie rights to True Grit. That's a very Portisian touch. Back in 1969, 300K probably bought a nice apartment building or trailer park.

Maybe he invested well and is sitting pretty.

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From the January 18-24, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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