12 August 2011

Portis’ ‘True Grit,’ or the Original Dangerous Book for Girls

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

I shall esteem it a sign of the Lord’s mercy if I do not pass the rest of my days writing in the voice of Mattie Ross, the narrator of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit; I aim to be more mindful in my use of contractions. Mattie’s authorial voice is so clear, so quirky and seductive, that it begins to color the world, as one reads, and it’s only the first among the many achievements of a novel I took far too long to pick up.

Hallie Steinfeld’s performance in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation seems even more impressive, now that I’ve read the book.

True Grit was published in 1968, when I was more likely to be reading Oz books than Westerns, but it found an admiring audience among my parents and their friends. The book passed from hand to hand, and prompted discussion; the first movie adaptation, starring John Wayne the next year, likewise met a warm welcome. But the movie’s success (the Duke’s only Oscar!) overshadowed the novel’s reputation, to the degree that it will come as a surprise to new readers that Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed marshal, is not the dominant character in the book. Far from it: that title belongs to Mattie alone.

Not the real stars: Jeff Bridges (Cogburn) and Matt Damon (LaBoeuf)

Writing in middle age, Mattie describes her quest for justice. A 14-year-old in Arkansas, she sets out to avenge her father’s death, hiring Cogburn (and joining forces with LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger) to pursue the murderer into neighboring Oklahoma, still a territory at the time. No matter the extremity of her situation, Mattie remains unflappable, mature far beyond her years, a pint-size Terminator who will not be dissuaded from her mission and who barely bats an eye at the harshness and violence of the still-uncivilized America she inhabits.

Steinfeld and Bridges

She’s almost like Dorothy, in Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, plucky and resourceful, unfazed by the curious creatures she meets. Indeed, one realizes early on that, whereas the book’s title ostensibly refers to Rooster Cogburn’s mettle, it’s Mattie herself who possesses grit — in abundance. If she’s not already a favorite heroine of teenage girls (and former girls), then she ought to be.

Is Portis suggesting that Mattie’s is the character that made America great, or tamed the West? Possibly so. Her rhetorical skills are finely honed, and her comprehension of commerce and the law far exceeds mere precocity. These are, in a sense, American virtues (or anyway, they’re esteemed by other Americans). And Mattie is, after all, upholding a certain idea of justice and family, all the while surrounded by older men with scant appreciation of either concept.

Steinfeld and Damon

Epic though Mattie’s quest may be, it’s told with surprising economy; Mattie accuses herself of being “discursive,” but her adventures take only a few days, and in the reading the pages fairly fly by. Portis’ handling of humor is especially notable — the scene in which Mattie encounters her father’s killer is a gorgeous comic set-piece — but equally impressive is his ability to render quickly paced action scenes in Mattie’s language, which sounds after all like a strange hybrid of Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and the King James Bible.

An undercurrent of melancholy runs through the book, too — the sense that, in later life, Mattie has found material success (unsurprisingly, since she’s virtually a practicing attorney from the earliest scenes) but lacks something else, a personal connection she lost when Cogburn and LaBoeuf rode out of her life. Yet Portis is resolutely understated in this, as in all questions of sentiment.

Rooster Cogburn, a sequel of sorts, is primarily an excuse to enjoy two beloved stars in a Wild West revamp of The African Queen.

In the years after the release of the original True Grit film (which I’ve never seen), Portis remained strictly a cult author, and until now, I’d never read a word of his writing. As a Katharine Hepburn completist, I had watched the sequel, Rooster Cogburn (from 1975), and as a Coen Brothers fan, I avidly sought out their remake, last year. The Coens’ interpretation turns out to have been faithful in every way, and it gave rise to the new paperback edition that I read. Curiously, despite the filmmakers’ fidelity, Portis’ prose makes the story entirely fresh: I never felt I was reading a novelization, and I was never for an instant bored.

It’s strange perhaps that I took so long to experience for myself the delights of True Grit, but it’s certain that I won’t wait another four decades before sampling Portis’ other fictions. If he’s capable of this, who knows what other wonders he may perform?


Anonymous said...

Try reading Portis's novel Norwood. Maybe not a novel to compare with Balzac or Zola, but an entertaining road-trip story with a lot of funny characters and scenes a la Easy Rider.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for the suggestion; I gather that Norwood is Portis' next-most popular book, and it's on my list. However, relying on the available editions at my local bookstore, I wound up with The Dog of the South as a next selection.