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Charles Portis ... Photo courtesy of Jonathan Portis

JACK WEATHERLY — ‘Portis experience’ ready to meet you where you are


“I hear you had the Charles Portis experience,” my colleague at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said.

I had had a chance meeting with the famous writer at a west Little Rock book store. And I may have still looked a bit starstruck.

I introduced myself to Portis, told him I was a fan and had worked with one of his brothers at the old Arkansas Gazette.

He was polite and friendly, but I didn’t feel comfortable trying to strike up a conversation — much less attempting to set a “lunch date,” though he might’ve been open to bending a few with me at one of his favorite watering holes down on the Arkansas River, though that would’ve been his call.

But the moment was what it was.

Just like his plain, brilliant prose, made famous in “True Grit” and his other picaresque novels.

Portis kept to himself. A lifelong bachelor, he missed out on what used to be called the civilizing influence of a wife,  meaning formal socializing.

He died quietly on Monday at 86 after years of Alzheimer’s had long silenced him and guaranteed he would not be making public appearances. Tributes, of course, started pouring in with the first notices of his death.

His writing (and occasionally his youngest brother, Jonathan) had to do all the speaking for him. Now it is all we have (though one wonders if there are unpublished manuscripts.)

It seems no one dislikes Portis’ writing. It was what he didn’t write that occasionally raised a polite protest.

Roy Blount Jr., another Southern humorist and huge Portis fan, gently suggested more than once that he wished Portis had put on the mask of tragedy, intimating that with a load of gravitas he would have been a greater writer.

Who knows? Maybe he would have won a Pulitzer, or even a Nobel. He seems to remain our “least-known great writer.”

(Two movie versions of “True Grit” have helped  — in 1969, starring John Wayne, and in 2010 as a treatment by the Coen brothers, who met their genius match in Portis and had the wisdom to leave his prose intact.)

He could’ve been Cormac McCarthy, Blount says. But then he wouldn’t have been Charles Portis. That doesn’t seem right.

A collection of his shorter unpublished works, “Escape Velocity,” published in 2012, proves that Portis’ talent was not limited, that it was a matter of choice. The proof text is “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” drawn from Portis’ experiences as a Marine during the Korean War.

Sorry, but that did not dominate the Portis world view, at least in what he wrote, whether in “True Grit,” “Norwood,” “The Dog of the South,” “Gringos” or “Masters of Atlantis.”

And not at the expense of losing those wonderful comic bon mots. For example, there is a character in “True Grit” — one of a list of wonderfully named characters. He is The Original Greaser Bob, not to be mistaken for Greaser Bob.

What a rascally wit.

The narrator of “True Grit” is Mattie Ross, who is an old woman retelling the tale of herself as a precocious 14-year-old by-golly determined to bring the man who murdered her father to justice.

She decided she needed to hire a U.S. marshal with true determination and ability to get the job done. That, of course, meant she would pick Rooster Cogburn in Fort Smith, Arkansas to go with her into the wilds of the Oklahoma Territory to get the man, Tom Chaney.

A haughty Texas Ranger, La Beouf (la beef), who is also on the trail of Chaney for a murder in Texas, completes the mismatched trio.

It probably helps to live in Arkansas a long time (I did for more than a quarter of a century) to appreciate the humble world view that Portis captures so well and so subtly, including the contempt for arrogance — such as in some parts of neighboring Texas, say.

But wherever you’re from or are living now, it’s Portis’ world you enter when you crack open one of his books.

» Contact JACK WEATHERLY at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com.


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About Jack Weatherly