The cult novelist Charles McColl Portis died on February 17. This article was first published in 2011.
Rooster Cogburn, the charismatic rogue played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brothers’s entertaining 2011 film True Grit, is fearsome enough – a one-eyed, whiskey-guzzling, trigger-happy US marshal. But his creator, Charles Portis, the reclusive and somewhat forgotten American novelist who wrote the 1968 book on which the film is based, wasn’t someone to mess with either.
“A reporter from The Times wanted to arm-wrestle, and as I recall, he kept challenging me,” Portis once revealed in a rare interview with Roy Reed for the Little Rock Gazette. “So we went at it and there was a pop. His arm broke. Very strange. He went into a kind of swoon.”
Known only as “Buddy” to his friends, Portis was born in El Dorado, Arkansas in 1933, to Samuel Palmer Portis, a seventh son, and Alice, the daughter of a Methodist minister and one of 11 children. He had a bucolic upbringing across the state in Mount Holly, a dream of a place where “flying squirrels glided across [the] front yard” and watermelons were left floating in the creeks to cool. Mount Holly had two schools – one for blacks, one for whites – and a backdrop of interesting characters included moonshiners and bootleggers.
Many of his early days were spent swimming outdoors with friends and poring over the adventures of “forgotten comic book heroes like Plastic Man and The Sand Man”.
Films were another favourite escape, especially at the “shabby and disreputable Star cinema” in El Dorado, where he would watch westerns. A droll, deadpan humour, evident throughout Portis’s novels, was a family trait. “The Portises were talkers rather than readers or writers,” he said. “[There was] a lot of cigar smoke and laughing when my father and his brothers got together. Long anecdotes.”
He signed up to the Marines and fought in the Korean War. On his return to the United States, he took a major in journalism at the University of Arkansas and became a reporter in 1958. He was put on the night police beat, covering State Fair stories and ice storms and waiting for the occasional murder.
“I didn’t care for beat reporting, covering the same thing day after day – short attention span,” he admitted.
It was the era of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Portis had to cover the civil rights turmoil, noting interestingly that “some of it was the Civil War being replayed as farce”.
After three years in Little Rock, Portis moved on to the Herald-Tribune, working for three years in New York before his spell in London.
Based near the Savoy Hotel, he combined reporting with his duties as bureau chief. He was amused rather than annoyed by the constant clicks of the telephones that indicated British intelligence were tapping his calls. He also dealt with Downing Street, as he remembered: “The Prime Minister was Sir Alec Douglas-Home. He gave us – a handful of American correspondents – one or two off-the-record interviews and spoke of Lyndon Johnson as, ‘your, uh, rather racy president’, referring, I suppose, to Johnson’s barnyard humour.”
He quickly became disillusioned with the whole business of “management comedies”. As he says: “I wanted to try my hand at fiction, so I gave notice and went home to America.”
That was in November 1964. Four years later, he had published True Grit to widespread acclaim. Roald Dahl – who rarely reviewed books – wrote in praise for the American first edition dust jacket:
True Grit is the best novel to come my way for a very long time. I was going to say it was the best novel to come my way since… Then I stopped. Since what? What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last 20? I do not know. I expect some have, but I cannot recall them right now. Marvellous it is. He hasn’t put a foot wrong anywhere. What a writer!
The book is written as a world-weary spinster’s account of the events of 1873, when, as a spiky 14 year-old, she avenged her father’s murder. Portis’s language is blunt but poetic. The murderer, Tom Chaney, was “a short man with cruel features”. Rooster Cogburn, the flawed hero, “a pitiless man who loves to pull a cork”.
Passing characters are dissected: one is “a long-backed man with a doorknob head and a mouth full of prominent teeth”, another is a gossip who “could no more keep her mouth closed than can a yellow catfish”. The action rattles along and events are seen in the hard, unsentimental eye that Cormac McCarthy would assume a few decades later.
The first film adaptation, starring John Wayne, was made in 1969 and when Portis visited the set he marvelled at the way Wayne and Robert Duvall blew up and stormed off – only to return as though nothing had happened.
The original film, though, lacks the book’s charm and power – something the Coen brothers captured far more successfully, a success reflected in the 10 Oscar nominations the film received. Jeff Bridges, the new Rooster Cogburn, says: “The Coens mentioned the idea of doing a western to me years ago, and I thought that sounded interesting, and then when I got the script and it was True Grit I was surprised. Then I read the book and it made perfect sense. It’s very Coen-esque.”
It's also funny how many people you come across who are Portis fans. Writer Roddy Doyle and country music singer Tom Russell have both separately urged me to read The Dog of the South. In November 2014 the comedian and Better Call Saul actor Bob Odonkirk gave an interview in the New York Times saying that Portis is one of his favourite authors. (“And I love True Grit as read by Donna Tartt in the audiobook,” he added.).
Despite the enormous success of True Grit, decades would pass before Portis’s next, The Dog of the South, hit the shelves. It is a comic masterpiece. But in the wake of publishing Gringos in 1991, Portis himself began declining all requests for interviews.
“Talking about himself is something that would feel false,” William Whitworth, the former editor of The Atlantic, said of his old friend. “It would be like asking him to stand up and sing like Frank Sinatra.”