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'Portis' characters are painfully human; they are often complicated, sometimes plain wretched, and always worth the price of admission," writes Anne Harris of the great man's True Grit. "And his frugal comic dexterity can be so subtle as to just whisper beneath catastrophe."
True Gritby Charles Portis
Overlook, 215 pp., $13.95
Clichés exist for a reason -- they're true. The source material is a better bet than what Hollywood hath wrought. So if your memories of True Grit bring images of John Wayne in an eye patch, keep reading. No disrespect to the Duke -- Rooster Cogburn brought home an Oscar, Wayne's only Academy Award -- but while reading Charles Portis' work is equal parts cinema and odyssey, to the Portis hardcore, the film is like a trip to the mall compared to the novel's real vacation. Leading with a deadpan genius for the absurd, he has been described by his literati fans as the Mark Twain of the 20th century.
Our guide for this trip is the inestimable Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old straight shooter from Dardenelle, Ark., who takes us into her confidence as she sets out for the post-Civil War Oklahoma Territory to avenge her father's murder. Armed with a dragoon pistol and good sense, she employs the aid of the hard-bitten Marshall Cogburn, who is known as much for his ruthlessness as for his affinity for "pulling a cork." Rousting him from his cot in the back of a Chinese grocery, Mattie sets out to track the murderous and stupid Tom Chaney. Chaney, a dead-luck ranch hand taken in by the Ross family, has shot Mattie's father down in front of the Monarch boarding house, robbed him, and run off to join the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. As we join Mattie, Rooster, and a dandy Texas bounty hunter named LaBoeuf for a hard camp through the harsh winter of the Choctaw nation, we share fires and food with horse thieves, train-robber trash, Confederate Indians in store clothes, and of course, Cogburn, whose heroic heart belies his reputation as a thief and a drunk.
Portis' characters are painfully human; they are often complicated, sometimes plain wretched, and always worth the price of admission. And his frugal comic dexterity can be so subtle as to just whisper beneath catastrophe. Consider the young horse trader Cook, who looked old when he died because "he was carrying a twenty-one foot tape worm along with his business responsibilities and that aged him." Blindfold your pony and wade into this book. We promise you won't forget to laugh.
Overlook has also released new editions of Portis' Gringos, The Dog of the South, and Norwood.