The call came as I was just about to disembark from the Bx34 bus, in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, about two blocks from my home. It was my older brother, Sweetums, calling from Switzerland. After catching up on family matters and general chitchat, the call took on the timbre of a wellness call: "As a regular reader of your blog, I have to note that you seem to be remiss in blogging about the death of Charles Portis." I could detect a hint of concern in his voice... knowing how big a Charles Portis fan I am, something was up. I don't set Google alerts, and I have to confess that I had actually looked up Charles Portis back in January, as I do occasionally, so I wasn't expecting news of his death of Alzheimer's complications at the age of 86. BUMMER. That call took place two weeks ago, but a post like this isn't so easy to write... it involves quite a bit of re-reading.
Portis was not a prolific writer, having penned only five novels, but his second, and best (but not my favorite) novel, True Grit, was a bestseller made into two movies, in 1969 and 2010. The 1969 adaptation ensured Portis' fortune, so he never had to resort to writing potboilers to pay the bills (one common trope in biographies of Portis was that he 'retired to a fishing shack in Arkansas'). I wrote a fairly extensive blog post about True Grit shortly after the release of the 2010 film. If you've never read it, get it now and read it, and then read it again... we're all supposed to be under quarantine, you're going to need reading material and this book is perfect.
Portis' first novel, 1966's Norwood, is best described, like most of his novels, as a picaresque... the protagonist, Norwood Pratt (Portis was once the London bureau chief of the Herald Tribune) is a young Marine granted a hardship discharge upon the death of his father, in order to care for his sister, 'a heavy, sleepy girl with bad posture... old enough to look after herself and quite large enough, but in many ways... a big baby'. Portis sends him from Ralph, Texas to New York City to collect a seventy dollar debt from an old military buddy. As luck would have it, a chance run-in 'Grady Fring the Kredit King', who needs someone to transport a car to NYC, sets him on his journey, where he eventually meets such characters as a 'college educated' chicken, 'the world's smallest perfect fat man', a Jewish travel writer who doesn't travel, and, eventually, the love of his life. The novel, which reads much like Midnight Cowboy reimagined as a comedy, was made into a film (which I've never seen) starring True Grit leads Kim Darby and Glen Campbell in 1970:
Portis' third novel, The Dog of the South, mines a lot of the same material that Norwood did, it is a picaresque whose protagonist, bookish Arkansan named Ray Midge, chases after his wife, who has run off with her ex-husband, a scoundrel named Dupree. To make matters worse, the pair have stolen Midge's car, a shotgun, and credit cards. Charles Portis' keen eye for all details automotive is on display as he describes the clunker that Dupree has exchanged for Midge's car:
In exchange for my car, he had left me his 1963 Buick Special. I had found it in my slot at the Rhino Apartments parking lot, standing aside a red puddle of transmission fluid. It was a compact car, a rusty little piece of basic transportation with a V-6 engine. The thing ran well enough and it seemed eager to please but I couldn't believe the Buick engineers ever had their hearts in a people's car. Dupree had shamefully neglected it. There was about a quarter-turn of slack in the steering wheel and I had to swing it wildly back and forth in a childlike burlesque of motoring. After a day or two I got the hang of it but the violent arm movements made me look like a lunatic. I had to stay alert every second, every instant, to make small corrections. That car had 74,000 miles on it and the speedometer cable was broken. There was a hole in the floor on the driver's side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That's enough on the car for now.
Using the receipts from his stolen credit cards, Midge deduces that his quarry has traveled south to Mexico, and he remembers that Dupree's family owns a property in British Honduras. As in Norwood, the protagonist, a 'gringo of goodwill in a small Buick', meets a variety of weirdos, such as petty criminal Dr Reo Symes, the owner of a bus with 'The Dog of the South' painted on its sides. The book is, like most of Portis' novels, alternately hilarious, sad, and trenchant, and was optioned for a film treatment by Bill Hader.
Portis' last novel, 1991's Gringos, like The Dog of the South, is also set in Latin America, specifically the Yucatán. The protagonist, Jimmy Burns, is an expatriate American who earns his living by taking on transportation jobs, occasional black-market dealing of artifacts, and other odd jobs... though he is 'the very picture of an American idler in Mexico, right down to the grass-green golfing trousers'. The plot of the book involves a search for a missing American girl who may have run away from home with an ex-con self-styled New Age guru, a false prophet who has joined an influx of hippies hoping for mystical experiences. Burns is a mercenary, but he isn't quite the antihero that True Grit's Rooster Cogburn is. The book contains what might be characterized as Charles Portis' keenest commentary on his fellow Southerners:
Dorsey was still looking for the catch. He couldn't size me up except that he was pretty sure I didn't report to work every morning. The back of his neck, a web of cracks, was burnt to the color and texture of red brick from much honest labor in the sun. A badge of honor, you might think, but no, it was the mark of the beast. The thanks that Dorsey and his people got for all their noonday sweat was to be called a contemptuous name. Few rednecks actually had red necks these days, but Dorsey Teeter had one that glowed.
I'm holding off on writing about Charles Portis' 1985's Masters of Atlantis. This book is perhaps my favorite comedic novel, a wild farrago of true believers in recondite 'lore' and the grifters who see them as a means to make a fast buck. While I read this novel, checked out from the public library, as a high-school student, mom actually checked up on me because I was laughing so hard I was having trouble breathing. I'm going to save this book for another post, such is my intense love for it. After the 2010 release of True Grit, now-disgraced WNYC host Leonard Lopate did a segment of Portis.
Roy Blount Jr once observed that Portis “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” Even in his books which are punctuated by violence, such as True Grit and Gringos, there is no reveling in gore, and the action is punctuated by comedic scenes. If you haven't read anything by the man, please do... at least read True Grit. See for yourselves what being a member of the Portis cult is all about.
Thanks, Sweetums, for breaking the news to me... you have the wisdom of a Pletho Pappus!