An ex-Marine from the Texas panhandle adopts a performing chicken on a long bus ride home from New York. A plain-spoken Methodist girl of 14 exerts pitiless vengeance on the killers of her father in Indian Country. A feckless cabal forms a touchingly ineffectual pseudo-religion that turns out to harbor real cosmic truth. A hard-nosed, narrowly reformed antiques smuggler finds unlikely love in rural Mexico. These are the sorts of things that occur in the singular novels of Charles Portis.
Portis, who died in 2020 at 86, occupies a sui generis place in American letters. A humorist capable of conjuring storm clouds of emotion with a few lithe turns of phrase, an Eisenhower-era traditionalist often lumped in with the counterculture-adjacent New Journalism, and a quintessential spinner of skewed yarns who provided the source material for that most straightforward of American cinematic hero journeys in “True Grit,” Portis was a bit like one of his eccentric, asymmetric characters. A meticulously curated new compendium from the Library of America, which collects his five novels and assorted other works, allows for a fresh opportunity to reckon with his slippery, unsettled legacy.
In one sense, a Library of America edition of Portis’s work is a kind of surprise ending. It’s tempting to point out the disjunction between the author’s fundamental outsider stance and his postmortem embrace by the institutional intelligentsia. With great subversiveness, Portis consistently abjured America’s postwar fetishes for progress, social mobility and affluence. He absorbed the growing cosmopolitan world with a shrug and a smirk. The DNA of both small-c conservatism and New Deal-era egalitarianism is a regular feature of his work, and arguably its major theme is a rejection of modern hierarchies of wealth and stature.
Like the protagonist of his first novel, “Norwood” (1966), Portis served in the Marines, achieving the rank of sergeant and seeing combat in the Korean War. He then navigated an ambitious path to the uppermost ranks of journalism, parlaying regional reporting jobs at the Arkansas Gazette and the Memphis Commercial Appeal into a four-year stint at the New York Herald Tribune, where he eventually headed up the London bureau in the early ’60s. This was rarefied air for a 31-year-old newsman, but it didn’t suit him, and in 1964 he quit journalism and returned to Arkansas to become a novelist. This commenced a pattern in both his life and his work of eschewing overt demonstrations of upward mobility. He regarded the dawning age of mass consumption and self-fascination with considerable circumspection.
Luckily, he was an even better novelist than he was a journalist. “Norwood” is a brief but compelling introduction to the offbeat and exciting prose style Portis would develop as a fiction writer. Mirroring his journalism training, there is an emphasis on economy of language: Slender, at 190 pages, it possesses the character of a well-written travel feature. But what a weird feature! Norwood Pratt is an earnest gas station employee who gets wrapped up in a roustabout grifter’s web. Induced to fence some stolen cars by driving them east, Norwood quickly loses interest in his central journey, collects an old debt, garners a girlfriend and eventually beats the instigating grifter half to death when he is threatened with repercussions for his apostasy. It’s easy to see why the Coen brothers — avowed Portis fans who adapted his second novel, “True Grit,” in 2010 — have cited him repeatedly as a central influence. These are American stock characters and stereotypes stood on their head. “Norwood” is a Southern Gothic version of “On the Road,” only funnier and with better manners.
“True Grit” was life-changing in ways Portis couldn’t have anticipated. An addictive tour de force told through the inimitable voice of Mattie Ross, who recounts the time when she was a justice-obsessed 14-year-old, it’s a gut-busting, pitch-black comedy that is one part Shakespearean revenge fantasy and one part demystification of Old West mythos. Mattie’s for-hire lawman/assassin, Rooster Cogburn, is much closer to a hair-trigger Falstaff than the resolute Manifest Destiny hero John Wayne depicted in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film adaptation. That Oscar-winning version of “True Grit” placed Portis in a precarious position of industry notoriety that he was arguably never fully able to navigate. Never forthcoming about matters of biography — he had steadfastly refused to supply a standard author’s photo for the release of “Norwood” — Portis now faced a paradox: The success of Wayne and Hathaway’s movie essentially told the general public the least-relevant information about his work. He contributed a couple of low-stakes sequel scripts but was otherwise quiet until “The Dog of the South” was published in 1979.
One of the funniest and strangest novels published in the English language, “The Dog of the South” follows the endearingly credulous and well-meaning Arkansan Ray Midge on a dizzying journey to track down his rival Guy Dupree, who has stolen both Midge’s wife and his Ford Torino. (An important early detail is that Midge is somewhat more concerned about the car than the wife.) The ensuing travelogue verges on the psychedelic, and is both literally and metaphorically hijacked by one of the most indelible characters in American literature, Dr. Reo Symes, a destitute, 300-pound once-practicing physician turned full-time con man, whose long-winded monologues on subjects from sales tips to literature go laugh-for-laugh with the funniest of Mark Twain. When Midge finally confronts the desiccated, drug-addled Dupree and says, “We are weaker than our fathers,” it’s one part ribbing of the counterculture and one part reflection of Portis’s fundamental skepticism about the wheels of progress. Like the ancient Greeks, he strongly suspected that human matters were not improving.
Squinted at one way, “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) could almost be interpreted as a parody of novels by Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, with its misfit group of consummate outsiders obsessed with secret societies, unbreakable codes and their quasi-cosmic implications. It’s the story of the turnip-rube World War I veteran Lamar Jimmerson, who is conned into buying a “sacred text” on his way home from Europe and then proceeds to affably and mostly ineffectually try to parlay possession of the artifact into a following on the home front. The story lurches ahead in a series of unforgettably hilarious set pieces that never seem to produce any deeper consequences. Then, depending on your reading, the very meaning of life suddenly takes center stage.
“Collected Works” also includes a survey of Portis’s journalism, essays and other nonfiction, ranging from visceral accounts of civil rights violence in the segregated South during the early ’60s to a droll comedic essay from 1977 that comprised his one and only appearance in the New Yorker to the short memoir “Combinations of Jacksons,” published in 1999 in the Atlantic. If there is nothing so revelatory as his novels here, the miscellany is useful for underscoring the searching curiosity that underpins even the silliest of his comic reveries. Crucially, his fascination with the horrors and splendors of the world runs neck and neck with his skepticism.
Portis’s final novel, “Gringos,” which appeared in 1991, is a neo-noir that consolidates all the anxiety, comedy and magic of his previous work into the travails of a hard-bitten American expatriate named Jimmy Burns. “Nothing ever happens in Mexico until it happens” is an ominous early tagline. As in Elmore Leonard’s greatest works, a nervous sense of inevitable, awful and profoundly satisfying violence lurks throughout. In typical Portis fashion, the novel glides to its resolution with the transporting advantage of several well-executed twists.
Speaking of twists, one wonders how exactly Portis would have metabolized his posthumous elevation into the canon. The likely answer would be with skepticism, bemusement and a heavy dose of humility. We are weaker than our fathers — perhaps it is so — but we do the best that we can.
Elizabeth Nelson is a critic, singer and songwriter. The latest release from her band, the Paranoid Style, is “For Executive Meeting.”
1,096 pp. The Library of America. $45
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