In the late 60’s, a handful of men managed to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the blues had no color, or even nationality. The one who, along with the long gone Duane Allman, proved it deepest and truest, was Peter Green, founder of the original Fleetwood Mac.
He died today in a world that is on fire in large part because the lessons of his music remain ignored and discarded. I’m not feeling too good myself, but I pause to remember and reflect. Maybe we should listen this time. Maybe we should even refuse to forget.
I spent the summer of 1979 working at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. My car was a ’71 Ford Maverick with no air-conditioning and an AM-only radio. In that part of North Carolina I could pull about four stations. If I spent more than four minutes in the hot car I heard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band on at least one of those stations.
More than a few times, when I was tooling around looking for record shops, I heard it on all four stations consecutively. The record would end on one station and go to a commercial or a song I didn’t like (a VERY common occurrence in 1979 no matter where I was) and I would punch the button and land in the middle of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Then it would end and I would change stations again and the next station would be playing it and so on. I learned the words a long time before the summer was over.
Today when I found out Charlie had passed, I pulled it up on YouTube and, though I hadn’t heard it in at least twenty years, I hadn’t forgot a thing–including the fall of ’79, when I came home and started watching college football and poor Chris Schenkel was doing a game intro, welcoming the fans to the game of the week and, whichever southern stadium was hosting (Athens? Auburn? Baton Rouge?…the memory hazes) had Charlie for a guest and the network cut to him just as he was substituting “son of a bitch” for “son of a gun.”
Of course there was a lot more to Charlie Daniels than my memories (which stretched back to my sister and me laughing at “Uneasy Rider” on the way home from the mall almost a decade before). He was a top-tier session man and formidable band leader and his big break came writing the greatest record in Elvis’ vast secret catalog (and one of the greatest in his catalog, period):
Later on, in 1982 to be exact, he took the lid off the top 40’s resistance to the damage Viet Nam had left in both individual vet’s lives and the country’s psyche with his cover of Dan Daley’s “Still in Saigon.” Whether that was a makeup for redneck anthems like “Leave This Long Haired Country Boy Alone” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” or a continuum of a valid world view is a matter of taste. What is undeniable is that it opened a seam that, on the radio, ran all the way to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.”
But to tell you the truth, what I remember today is the Summer of ’79, when he was literally the only good thing on the radio…so good they played him on every station, country, rock and pop, all day long, all summer long:
Bonnie Pointer left her sisters in 1977 (just before they made the jump to major stardom) and had the usual solo career: strong start, long fade. Her sister Anita was the distinctive lead on most of the Sisters’ iconic hits before and after the split.
But Bonnie left her own large impact on the culture just the same, co-writing several of the group’s early hits, one of which “Fairytale,” became a Grammy-winning crossover hit.
What it crossed over to first was the country chart. What the Grammy was for was Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for the year 1974, the year they also became to first female vocal group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
If you don’t think that was a big deal in 1974, or yesterday, you haven’t been paying attention. No one–no one–represented the aspirtaional aspects of Rock and Roll America better than the Pointer Sisters, who never did anything but make great records in any style they tried. After her solo career petered out, Bonnie had her share of troubles, sourced in drugs as usual. I hope she’s found the peace she deserved tonight.
Like not a few young women before her–Carla Thomas at Stax was another prime example–Betty Wright was instrumental in establishing a scene/label/genre which proceeded to drop her by the wayside on the way to bigger things. In Wright’s case her decidedly un-hip 1968 hit “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” was a foundation record for the burgeoning Miami scene which, following her 1971 monster hit “Clean Up Woman,” became a major player in 70’s funk, soul and disco. Her label, Alston Records, spun off TK (home of the McCraes–whom the teenage Wright discovered–and KC and the Sunshine Band) and the rest was history. In funk central’s move from Memphis to Miami, Wright was a major player.
She never had another hit as big, but it wasn’t for a lack of making great records, a fate she shared with a lot of fantastic R&B female singers who were her contemporaries: Stacy Lattisaw, Ann Peebles, Candi Staton. One or two shots at the mainstream, then back to the modern chitlin circuit or the gospel highway or a bit of both.
Twenty-five years ago I came up with a home-made mix-taping concept called Radio Free America that eventually turned into about forty home tapes (later reconstructed for CD). The idea was to compile records from every conceivable rock ‘n’ roll genre, as long as they had the beat, the beat, the beat. Those mix-tapes ended up providing me with about as good a definition of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve ever come up with–whatever the girls on Shindig and Hullabaloo could dance to. Of course, any concept needs to start somewhere and after about two minutes, I knew where those forty tapes had to start:
Betty Wright passed away from cancer on May 10 at the age of 66, mostly forgotten everywhere except Black America…and my house.
He recorded almost everything he would be known for in about two years. His various “retirements” from Rock ‘n’ Roll, which he really did believe was the devil’s music, were nearly as numerous as his greatest hits. I’m pushing sixty and he spent most of my lifetime living off his legend.
Doesn’t matter. That brief, shining moment in the 50’s wasn’t everything he ever was, but it was enough. The fire he lit burned deep and long just as if he had answered God’s call after all. It has survived our cultural collapse the only way anything can–by sinking deep in the heart of man, where it will forever constitute the spirit that will need rekindling if we’re ever to amount to anything again.
Two years or two hundred, no man can do more than that.
I have to confess that singer/songwriter John Prine’s voice never moved me. I got to know his songs through other people–but there were a lot of them and a lot of singers did them justice: Bonnie Raitt, Tanya Tucker, Swamp Dogg, Bette Midler, to name just a few. Everybody got up for a John Prine song.
No one who follows along here will be surprised that my favorite Prine cover was by Jackie DeShannon on her wondrous Atlantic LP, Jackie from 1972. In its double-length CD version (only half was released initially), it’s one of the great concept albums, tied together by spiritual, rather than philosophical or lyrical themes. In any version, the first cut, a rendition of Prine’s “Paradise,” set the tone–game recognizing game on a song that probably struck an even deeper autobiographical chord for her than for him.
If you’re a lifelong sports fan, you end up having a lot of “favorite players.”
Al Kaline was my first.
Who knows why?
I wasn’t from anywhere near Detroit where he spent his entire 22-year career (which by the way wasn’t nearly as common in the pre-free agent era as some people would have you believe). I’d never even been north of the Mason-Dixon line. I was Scottish, but I didn’t know “Kaline” was, and it wouldn’t have made much difference if I did…being Scottish in America isn’t like being Jewish or Mexican or Irish or African-American.
If somebody had asked me to explain, my ten-year-old self probably would have said something like “I like how he plays the game.” Heady, controlled, hit to all fields, quiet, not flashy. As someone who got benched when I was eleven (after going 5 for 12 in four games with two doubles and two triples) because my manager knew I wouldn’t bitch to my parents about playing time and later got very used to coaches telling me, “I didn’t know you were having that good a year,” whenever the first batch of league-wide stats came out and I was hitting north of .500, let’s just say I related to the not-flashy part.
When people talked about Al Kaline they talked about his fundamentals, his lack of weaknesses, his consistency, week-to-week, month-to-month, season-to-season. That was the way I wanted to be talked about and the way I wanted to play. He set the model in my own mind for the athletes I would admire most (Chris Evert, Henry Aaron, Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Glavine, Walter Payton, Tim Duncan) the ones who, at least as they played their sport, would best embody what I believed then, and believe now, are sport’s highest ideals of stoicism and courage, in all weathers.
Kaline never spent a day in the minors, still holds the record as the youngest American League batting champion, was a 15-time All Star and a 10-time Golden Glove winner, hit .379 in the only World Series he played in (one of only two Series the Tigers have won since 1945). He passed away this week after 85 years on this mortal plane, 66 of which he spent married to the same woman, 67 of which he spent working for the Detroit Tigers, who I haven’t specifically rooted for since the day he retired.
That’s another lesson I took to heart.
It’s not the uniforms that matter. It’s the people inside them.
Bill Withers sprang from, and came to epitomize, one of America’s great under-sung traditions, a style of laconic expression (see Arthur Alexander or Bobby Hebb or even Mississippi John Hurt) that Black America kept close to the vest until the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement made permanent middle-class respectability seem like more than a pipe dream.
I’m not sure how much of that aspiration-fueled ideal really exists anymore despite considerable economic progress. Money’s a start, but it’s far from everything. But in the moment when progress felt not necessarily real but certainly within reach, Bill Withers was a–perhaps the–key player. He wasn’t just the poor boy made good, or even the coal miner’s son come to conquer the city. He was the one who did all that by honoring tradition without letting anyone fool themselves into thinking he had gone any way but his own.
His voice, whether singing, writing, or playing, was warm without being sentimental. You always knew you were in the presence of someone who saw clearly and had parlayed that clarity into a life that most people who wanted to climb to the middle of the ladder (no further) from the bottom had to lie, cheat or sell their souls for. He made it on talent and, as they say, the content of his cantankerous character.
For about five years in the 70’s there was no one like him. When the business demanded for too long that he go with the rest, he left the business and lived out his days as a kind of Grand Old Man figure.
He passed away this week at 81, with the fight he put up–the fight to be judged by a new ideal–long lost for any but the grifters.
We should not forget how it might have been….what the Revolution was like in his hands.
My father, John Howard Ross, Sr., would have been one hundred years old today. He left way more than a hundred stories so I’ll tell one of my favorites:
First, some background:
In 1993 we went to Alaska. He hadn’t been there since 1946. He was fresh out of the U.S. Army then (on a Section 8 at least according to one of the stories he told–he pretended to be crazy for a Stanford medical experiment and then pretended to cure himself in order to shave six months off his service, which had been spent fighting forest fires in the Rockies because his Conscientious Objector status had been rejected by the Draft Board after Pearl Harbor and they didn’t want him spoiling the morale in a combat unit) and spent a season panning for gold and helping paint the Hurricane Gulch Railroad Bridge.
There were a wife and child waiting back in the lower 48 so he and his partner (Hugh, whose last name has since escaped me–a shame since some of the best stories came from Dad’s time with him, though not the one about Myrtle McSpadden and the Wrestling Bear or the one that ended with “My Son, do you by chance have any Jewish blood?” a question my Dad considered the greatest compliment of his life) left with the intention of returning the following Spring.
Complications set in. My brother ended up with his maternal grandparents in Massachusetts (my father’s parents had died before he was five). The wife (my brother’s mother) ended up on the FBI’s wanted list, Top Ten to hear Dad tell it, though that may have been projection. He ended up on the wanted list himself after he kidnapped my brother from Dad’s foster parents in Tennessee. How my brother is saner than I am, I’ll never know.
Anyway, Dad got divorced, became a Carny, went on the road for over a decade, met my mother, married her and settled down. The most life advice he ever gave me all at once was when I was twelve years old and we stood in front of our house just north of Cocoa, Florida, looking up Spring Street at U.S. 1, which I understood went all the way to Maine, and he pointed back at the house and said: “Son, I’ve seen everything there is to see…and there’s nothing that compares to this.”
By then he was an ordained Baptist minister. Within a few years he had a degree from a Bible College and was, along with my mother, being appointed a Southern Baptist Home Missionary specializing in prison ministries.
By the time we made Alaska in 1993, my mother had passed away and Dad had (very reluctantly) retired from mission work, having been aged out at 69.
He wanted to travel and we took several epic journeys together, with Alaska being the most epic of all.
He drove from Florida to Montana and I flew out to meet him. His 1968 VW Microbus (with 250,000 miles on it when the trip began) broke down in small town Missouri somewhere. Engine wouldn’t start. After consulting with a local mechanic who assured him it would take at least three days to get the part he needed he said, well I have to meet my son in Montana the day after tomorrow so that won’t do.
Being my dad, he didn’t do what just anybody would have done, which was swallow and accept his fate. He prayed (which some might have done). Then he got an eight pound mallet out of his my-life-goes-with-me Microbus (I think he kept it next to the guns I’m damn sure we weren’t supposed to be transporting across international borders) and walked around to the rear end where that particular vehicle houses its engine. Then he opened up the lid and gave the engine a couple of good whacks.
Started right up.
If you’ve ever ridden the Al-Can highway in the pre-cell phone era, with its long stretches of being a hundred miles from the nearest gas station, you’ll understand why he didn’t bother to share this with me until we got home.
I was nervous enough about the guns.
Anyway it was a fine and spectacular trip with one caveat.
Ten days. No showers.
Well, actually we had one at a truck stop on the second day. After that, no showers.
The catch to going on a trip with my Dad when you had no money of your own was that you were traveling by his rules.
Those days, as has often been the case since I decided time, including the time I spent with my Dad, was more important, I had no money of my own.
I traveled by his rules.
One of his rules was there was no sense staying in motels or hotels when you had a perfectly good VW Microbus with plenty of room to stretch out in the back. Heck, Dad had been doing it for years and never been arrested once. He had a love affair with Wal-Mart–plenty of security, good lighting, open all night. Stay quiet, nobody bothers you.
The Al-Can highway was even better. Truck stops!
Once we got to Alaska it was back to shopping centers and the like. But no hotels!
Now to tell the truth I can go a week without a shower. It’s not something I ever made a habit of, but I had reason to know that I’m one of those people who can go a week without a shower and nobody’s the wiser.
As long as I don’t sweat.
Let me tell you something about Alaska in the summertime. The sun goes down for about two hours. And it gets hot as blazes.
It wasn’t Oklahoma mind you–I found out about that in 1996 when Dad and I took our last epic journey and I was still broke.
But it was bad enough.
Did I mention the 1968 VW Microbus did not come with an air conditioner?
Maybe somebody’s did. Not my Dad’s.
We spent ten days sleeping in the back, head-to-foot, me smelling his feet and him smelling mine and, hey, I didn’t mind. I always had the ability to project, to think about what a great story this would make some day–probably got that from my Dad.
But at the end of the ten rough-and-ready days there came a matter of the plane ride home.
My work schedule dictated that I couldn’t be gone much more than ten days. I had to fly back. Anchorage to Seattle to Denver to Atlanta to Tallahassee and God forbid if I missed a link anywhere.
As we drove around Anchorage on the final day I realized I had to put my foot down.
“Dad, I’m not going to spend twenty hours in airplanes and airports when I haven’t had a shower in over a week and I’ve been sweating like a hog.”
He pursed his lips–his version of biting a bullet–and nodded his head.
We would look for a truck stop.
Problem was, we weren’t on the Al-Can highway anymore. Alaska proper is not loaded with truck stops, at least not within the limits of its major cities. If there was one to be found, nobody we asked knew about it.
Next stop…the Y.M.C.A.
In 1946, when my Dad knew everything about everywhere, that wouldn’t have been a problem.
In 1993 the Y.M.C.A. had a fee. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was something like a day long membership fee and, whatever it was, it was more than Dad was willing to pay for a shower.
We drove around, looking for a cheap motel.
They were cheap…but they weren’t cheap enough. The promise of a night in bed wasn’t going to lure my Dad any more than the promise of hot running water.
A longing look.
“Dad, I’m not gettin’ on a plane without a shower or a bath. I’ll just have to eat the price of the ticket and go back with you.”
The thought of wasted money. That was the one thing bound to make him persist.
I didn’t put my foot down very often. I was known for not putting my foot down, so when I did, he knew I meant it.
Stumped, stumped, stumped.
For a pretty good little while.
But not forever.
As we drove aimlessly on–his Scottish soul set on a price, mine set on a result–hopelessly deadlocked, until the answer at last arrived…in the form of a sign pointing to a campground.
$19.95 a night.
If we had seen it first, he would have rejected it out of hand.
Since we saw it last it was just what the doctor ordered if not an explicit Answer to Prayer.
We pulled in, we paid the fee, we parked.
And I know you forgot there was one by now but….
Therein lies the story.
I kept waiting for the catch, but none appeared.
Dad paid the fee. We parked. We hooked into whatever you hook into in those places.
There were copious signs pointing to the showers.
You couldn’t miss them.
All the hard battles had been fought. Heck, now that we were here, Dad had decided a shower might not be such a bad thing after all.
He’d take his right after I took mine.
We didn’t want to leave the vehicle unattended and sure didn’t want to have to keep track of the keys while we were both in the shower.
He knew about these places.
Keep that in mind.
We had each been given a towel and washrag. Free with the price of admission. We had been told that soap was available in the shower room.
It seemed I had everything I needed.
I headed for the shower room.
With my shoes on.
And then the adventures began.
It was mid-to-late afternoon by then, probably around 4:00. Weirdly, given that we were in the Land of the Midnight Sun, I remember the shadows being long.
Not so long I couldn’t see. The place was empty and the sunlight was shining through the high windows of the shower room at the Kamanawanalaya Campground** in Anchorage, Alaska. The interior lights were shining.
I could plainly see that most the floor was standing in about three inches of water.
I hiked back to the Micro-bus and took off my shoes and socks and pitched them into the back.
“Lotta water on the floor,” I said.
My Dad looked puzzled and then nodded. No comment.
It had been an edgy day. We weren’t on the easiest of terms.
I hiked back to the shower room, still dressed except for my shoes and socks.
When I got there it was still empty and the water was still covering most of the floor. I banished all thoughts of foot fungus, reminded myself I was the one who had pushed for this, and waded in.
There was a row of sinks to my left and toilets to my right. Above the sinks was a long shelf and mirror that ran the length.
Beyond that were a set of four shower stalls separated by single-width brick partitions painted vomit yellow, each stall covered by a curtain that fell to the height of a grown man’s knees. Call it Block A.
On the back wall, well off to my right were a matching set of four more stalls. Call it Block B.
In no stall of either Block was there anything like a step-over to block the water at the bottom from flooding out. Whatever didn’t go down the drain in the shower ended up on the floor of the main room.
Hence the flood. All the drains were inside the showers, but there was nothing to prevent most of the water from flowing out onto the main floor, where there were no drains.
Once I recognized that, I felt a bit more at ease. I was sure I knew the worst of it.
The water level seeming a bit less toward the back there, I headed for the back wall. Remember now: Block A, Left Wall; Block B, Back Wall. Got it? You’ll want to keep the geography in mind.
I had left my clothes and glasses on the shelf near Block A. When I reached Block B, I chose the third stall. I looked around for a bar of soap and there was none, so I went wandering around for a bit and found one next to the sinks. To this day I wonder if it was really anyone from the campground who left it there.
Once I had waded back to Block B, Stall 3, soap, towel and washrag now safely procured, I proceeded to place myself under the shower head and reached up and turned the nozzle.
A spray of water along the lines of what might be expected from a Force 3 Hurricane immediately shot out of the spout of Block A, Stall 1, thirty feet away, the stall closest to my casually strewn clothes, resting on the shelf above the row of sinks. The nozzle had evidently been pointed at the inner wall, because the stream of water, bounced off that wall, blew past the knee-length curtain, which flew up to head-height to let the stream pass and soak my clothes.
I got the nozzle of Block B, Stall 3 turned off as quick as a man in my now brain-dead condition could.
Then I said a few choice words. Then I just stood and stared for a while.
Then, slowly, very-y-y-y slowly, I emerged from what I would soon learn to think of as “my” stall.
I described everything above as it happened, but, believe me, it took longer than a few seconds for me to piece together exactly what had happened.
Once I did I began to wonder if the place came with instructions.
Here’s the weird thing. It did!
On the wall between Block A and Block B was a rather nondescript chart, designed as if it were meant to be ignored, like a No Swimming sign in a place that, after all, held no more than six inches of water. If one waded back to the shelf where one’s clothes–and glasses–were, and if one could find something dry to clean the water off one’s lenses, (no small task) and then waded over to the chart, one could find, and barely read, the designations for which shower nozzles went with which shower stalls.
Honestly, it seemed a relief at the time.
It took some doing, memorizing the chart sufficiently well to learn that if I went to Block A, Stall 2, and turned on the nozzle there, water would flow in Block B, Stall 3, where I was still set up and all ready to go!
Reader I went there. I went to Block A, Stall 2, and with only a moment’s hesitation, turned the nozzle. And I was rewarded…
With another Hurricane 3 blast….
From Block B, Stall 1.
After watching the water blow across the floor for a bit–who knows how long–I slowly, wearily, tuned off the nozzle in Block A, Stall 2.
So much for the Chart.
You know the rest of the story, though even I couldn’t tell you how long it took for me to conduct the trial-and-error experiments that led me, at last, to whichever Block and Stall actually turned on the nozzle in Block B, Stall 3.
Yes, I know I could have rushed over and retrieved my towel, washrag, and soap from Block B, Stall 3 and relocated, adjusted the nozzle in Block B, Stall 1, and gotten the job done in a shorter time.
But my Scottish soul had come too far and suffered too long for me to settle for that. Block B, Stall 3 it was to be, else I would bathe in the fungus-filled water collected on the shower room floor of the Kamanawanalaya Campground in Anchorage, Alaska.
Long story short, I showered, I sort of dried myself off (all the adventurous paths hurricane force water was taking in that place, you don’t really think there was a dry towel left now do you?). I dressed, all but my soaked undershorts. I left my soaked towel and washrag in the shower room.
I took another shot at drying off my glasses.
I walked, clean except for the grass clippings sticking to the damp soles of my bare feet, back to the VW Microbus, feeling like a man who had escaped Dante’s Inferno, wondering if Noah had gotten it backwards, lived through a fire and promised it would be the water next time.
I didn’t care then, and don’t care now, that the Hurricane 3 water pressure, once I finally stood under it, nearly scalded my skin, or that I point blank refused to go in to the individual stalls and at least point the nozzles, which all seemed to have been set at right angles to the floor, toward the drains that existed right beneath them and nowhere else.
Let others suffer as I had suffered.
I was in a very Old Testament mood when I reached home base and was met by my father with the words:
“Well I was about to send out a search party.”
I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t. I took the microbus keys from him, noted that he had taken off his shoes and socks and crawled into the front seat and threw my head back.
Off he strode and I was glad to see the back of him.
One word from me and we might have come to blows.
I had taken a vow of nonviolence when I was nine years old. If was going to break it, I didn’t want to break it going after my old man.
By then, the shadows had surely grown long, and not only in my mind.
And what happened after?
Suffice it to say, he was gone for a long time.
I did not consider sending a search party.
I was very interested in what his reaction would be when he returned.
And when, after a very long time, he did return, his reaction was thus.
He shook his head despairingly and said:
“John, I believe that place must have been designed by a pure genius, because no ordinary man could have done it.”
I collapsed with laughter. The anger and petulance of the long day vanished.
I laughed the way I laughed at my first Marx Brothers movie–the one my Dad told me to watch.
And I always liked that he understood why I hadn’t warned him.
To this day, I meet people who are convinced they’ve had more fun than me in this life.
All I can do is smile and think.
Because, remember, that’s just one story, and there were way more than a hundred.
Thanks Dad. Thanks for all of it. Let all the world say what they may. I know how it really was, and if God was only going to make one of you, I’ll never be more grateful for anything than that he made me your son.
(NOTE: My Dad was sucker-punched in a high school fight, knocked unconscious. Though he otherwise recovered, he lost his ear for music. The rest of his life, the only music he ever really heard was my mother’s singing voice and early New Orleans jazz. I don’t have the means of transferring the one tape I have of my mother to a computer format. Dad’s favorite musician will have to do.)
**No, Turtles’ fans, it wasn’t really called Kamanawanalya Campground. But it should have been!
People did not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenger her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, though I will say it did not happen every day.
(True Grit, the beginning)
With Harper Lee, one of exactly two modern American writers I wouldn’t have minded knowing. Like her, a writer who detested fame and headed for shelter.
Ports wrote five fine novels. One of them, True Grit, has a claim on being that elusive thing: The Great American Novel. Anyone who has formed their impressions from either or both of the two fine movies made from it knows less than half the story. There are things film cannot catch, though Portis was one of the few post-war writers who actually understood and exploited this.
True Grit actually is the novel the crit-illuminati always wanted Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be, with all the latter’s acerbic wit (and then some–Mattie Ross was a good deal tougher and more articulate than Mark Twain, never mind Huck Finn), and none of its rambling, episodic plot line. It’s a masterpiece of narrative as well as tone, a combination American novelists have so often striven for and so seldom achieved. You can feel how big the country is for once, and how wild, without losing track of the characters’ inner lives, all the more impressive for being given to us entirely through dialogue and first-person narration.
Arkansas native Portis reportedly got the idea for the narrator’s voice from his time as a Fayetteville newspaperman in charge of an editorial desk that specialized in trimming stories turned in by stingers from the outlying counties. Most of the interesting ones came from sharp-minded older women who had been raised on Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Victorian language and manners. Portis became frustrated by his boss’s insistence that he leave their most interesting stories and piquant turns of phrase on the cutting room floor. True Grit was, more than anything, his homage to them and his recognition that they were a fast-vanishing breed, without which, our big, wild country was already becoming lesser by the time he brought the novel to market in the late 60’s.
Good (and hilarious) as his other novels are, it was True Grit, and its two now near-iconic central characters, Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, that vaulted him to the rank of a writer who could stand next to giants, If you want to count the Americans who have written a novel as good or better, you won’t need your second hand (and that’s even if you include not-really-Americans like Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov).
He passed from complications of Alzheimer’s and Dementia this week, at 86, after decades of turning down interviews and being tagged “recluse.”
Really, though, I suspect some piece of him left a long time ago, when he wrote the finest ending of any novel I know and unless you’ve tried your hand at serious fiction, I don’t think you can realize just how hard it is to achieve perfection…or how empty the world can become once you have.
Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.