Chip McGrath profiles our man in Little Rock for The New York Times today:
"The arrival of the Coen brothers’ movie “True Grit” on Wednesday is likely to bring Charles Portis a new surge of attention he has no use for. Mr. Portis, the author of the 1968 novel on which the new film is based (as was the 1969 John Wayne version) is allergic to fame.
He’s not a Pynchonesque recluse, exactly. He is occasionally spotted in Little Rock, Ark., where he has lived for 50-odd years; he even went to a gala sponsored there recently by the Oxford American, a literary magazine, and consented to receive a lifetime achievement award, though he sat in the 14th row, or as far from the stage as he could. But Mr. Portis doesn’t use e-mail, has an unlisted phone number, declines interview requests, including one for this article, and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program. He hasn’t published a novel in nearly 20 years.
The writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, who got to know Mr. Portis in the early ’60s, when he was a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune, recalled that back then he was more sociable. “Charlie was just charming, the life of the party almost,” she said. “But he was a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a phone. The Trib had to make him get one. So even back then the pattern was there.”
His elusiveness has only enhanced his status as a cult writer’s cult writer, cherished by a small but devoted following. He has published four novels besides “True Grit” (all five have recently been reissued in paperback by the Overlook Press), and for years those in the sect have been pressing them on new readers like Masons teaching the secret handshake. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum, the unofficial grand vizier and first hierophant of Portis admirers, has called him “perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America.”
“True Grit,” Mr. Portis’s second novel, which was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks, is actually a divisive matter among Portis admirers. There are some, like the novelist Donna Tartt, who consider it his masterpiece, a work comparable to “Huckleberry Finn.” Others, like Mr. Rosenbaum, resent “True Grit” a little for detracting attention from Mr. Portis’s lesser-known but arguably funnier books: “Norwood” (1966), “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). The writer Roy Blount Jr., an old friend of Mr. Portis’s, suggested recently that Mr. Portis himself was a little embarrassed by the success of “True Grit.”
“I think that’s why in his next book, ‘Dog of the South,’ he set himself the challenge of a funny book written by a boring narrator,” Mr. Blount said. “That’s why other writers love him so much.”
“True Grit,” the story of the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, from Yell County, Ark., who with the help of the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn sets out to avenge the murder of her father by a drunken hired man named Tom Chaney, is not unfunny. It’s simultaneously a thoroughly satisfying western and a parody of one. But unlike Mr. Portis’s other books “True Grit” is a period piece — the story takes place in 1873 but is recounted decades later, when Mattie is by her own description a cranky old spinster — and the narrative voice is a feat of historical ventriloquism.
Mattie’s prose is stiff, formal (a quality lovingly captured by the Coen brothers), a little pious and platitudinous, given to scriptural quotation and fussy quotation marks: “I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious ‘claptrap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”
Mattie is lovable in her way, and though grit is what she admires in Rooster, she is hardly lacking in that department herself. But she is also humorless, righteous and utterly without either self-doubt or self-consciousness. She has no idea how she or her words come across on the page, nor would she care if she did.
“The Dog of the South” and “Gringos” are also written in the first person, and the two others might as well be. The voice in all them is loose and informal, even a little digressive, with a noticeable Southern quality. Mr. Portis’s friends say he talks much the same way, and to judge from “Combinations of Jacksons,” a memoir he published in The Atlantic in 1999, his nonfictional style isn’t much different from his fictional one: in both he is a great noticer, always alert to the odd but telling detail.
What the other novels have in common with “True Grit” is their deadpan quality. Most comic novels — think of anything by P. G. Wodehouse, say, or Ring Lardner — are fairly transparent: they unabashedly try to be funny and let the reader in on the joke. The trick of Mr. Portis’s books, especially the ones told in the first person, is that they pretend to be serious. They’re full of odd events and odd people with names like Norwood Pratt, Raymond Midge and Dr. Reo Symes, inventor of the underappreciated Brewster Method, a miracle cure for arthritis. But these are presented without a wink or a nudge, or any sense that slapstick touches like smooth-talking midgets, bread-fondling deliverymen or elderly gents wearing conical goatskin caps are at all unusual.
Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.
Unlike the tightly plotted “True Grit,” the other books are all shaggy-dog stories of a sort. In “Norwood” (which was made into a 1970 movie starring Glen Campbell) Norwood Pratt travels all the way to New York from his home in Ralph, Tex., to collect a $70 debt and winds up engaged to a girl he meets on a Trailways bus. In “The Dog of the South” Ray Midge drives to Mexico from Little Rock in search of his wife, who has run off with her first husband and Ray’s Ford Torino. “Masters of Atlantis” is about two guys who create the Gnomon Society, an esoteric, Rosicrucian-like sect based on wisdom from the lost city of Atlantis. And in “Gringos” an American expat in Mexico falls in with some U.F.O. nuts and archeologists searching for a lost Mayan city.
But in one way or another the subtext of all these novels is the great Melvillean theme of the American weakness for secret conspiracies and arcane knowledge, and our embrace of con men, scam artists and flimflammers of every sort. In Mr. Portis’s pantheon of tricksters, moreover, writers rank pretty high. There’s John Selmer Dix, author of “With Wings as Eagles,” an inspirational manual for salesmen, whose admirers rank him higher than Shakespeare; the hack writer Dub Polton, author of “Hoosier Wizard,” a political biography that pretty much makes everything up; and Lamar Jimmerson, compiler of the Codex Pappus, the sacred Gnomon text, which deliberately includes a lot of obfuscation to “weary and disgust the reader” and put him off the track.
All these texts, you can’t help noticing, are in their way not unlike Mr. Portis’s books in the degree of devotion and enthusiasm they evoke in their readers. They’re not self-parodies but, rather, warnings about the dubiousness of reputation and about the dangers of taking the cult of authorship too seriously.
“Talking about himself is something that would feel false and strange to him,” William Whitworth, the former editor of The Atlantic and his old friend, said of Mr. Portis. “It would be like asking him to stand up and sing like Frank Sinatra, or be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ ”