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.
(True Grit, the ending)
And where could he go after that?
To a better world waiting I hope.