I am not one of those people who always remember where they were when important things happened. But I remember exactly where I was the first time I read Charles Portis. I was lying on a hillside behind an elementary school in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I liked to take my dog and let her run. Sometimes I took a book along, and on this day in 1979, I lay there and began to read The Dog of the South.
I did not know much about Portis, only that he had written True Grit, which I had not read, nor even seen the movie, being at that time rather tired of John Wayne. But The Dog of South was an intriguing title, so, liking dogs and being fascinated by the South, I plunged in to see what it was all about.
The dog of the title was no dog at all but an old school bus, and it played only a minor part in the action, but that mattered hardly at all because a couple of pages in, I was laughing so hard that my dog gave up hunting squirrels and came over to check on me.
The novel is narrated by a fussy, melancholy cuckold named Raymond Midge, who begins by saying, “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone… When the receipts arrived they were in lumpy envelopes and the sums owed were such that American Express gave way to panic and urged me to call B. Tucker in New York at once and work out terms of payment. It was my guess that this ‘Tucker’ was only a house name, or maybe a hard woman who sat by a telephone all day with a Kool in her mouth.”
Dupree and Norma have gone off to Mexico, and Midge follows them. In the end, he gets his wife back and they return to Little Rock, but then she runs off again and this time he lets her go. The search for the love birds is not really the point of the book, though. Portis is much more interested in the places and people Midge meets along the way.
There is Jack Wilkie, a flamboyant Little Rock lawyer who is also chasing Dupree: “He struck me as one of those country birds who, one second after meeting you, will start telling of some bestial escapade involving violence or sex or both, or who might in the same chatty way want to talk about Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. It can go either way with those fellows and you need to be ready.”
Portis made me laugh out loud, but I wasn’t sure what to make of him. His humor was sort of dry and poker-faced, but it wasn’t like anyone else I had ever read. All I knew was that I craved more of it, and I devoured every novel of his I could find—and when Escape Velocity, a collection of his journalism, travel writing, some memoir, and his one play—appeared in 2013, I devoured that too. All five of his novels are about someone going on a trip (Even Masters of Atlantis, which is about a hapless cult and so more of a spiritual journey, but still...). Some of them are purely funny, and some mix the humor with serious things. True Grit and Gringos contain some downright evil people. As Roy Blount Jr. once observed, “Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.”
Portis is funny like Twain, and like Twain he can’t be pigeonholed. He fit no mold. He saw the world in a unique way, and he was talented enough to make you see it that way too. He noticed stuff that no one else bothered to pay attention to. No one but Portis could have written this passage about a cross-country bus trip on which the title character in Norwood, who’s just gotten a hardship discharge from the Marines, runs into a couple named Remley.
The Remleys had been picking asparagus in the Imperial Valley and were now on their way home with their asparagus money. Traveling with them was their infant son Hershel. Hershel was a cheerful, bright-eyed little fellow. He was very well behaved and Norwood remarked on this.
Mrs. Remley patted Hershel on his tummy and said, “Say I’m not always this nice.” Hershel grinned but said nothing.
“I believe the cat has got that boy’s tongue,” said Norwood.
“Say no he ain’t,” said Mrs. Remley. “Say I can talk aplenty when I want to, Mr. Man.”
“Tell me what your name is,” said Norwood. “What is your name?”
“Say Hershel. Say Hershel Remley is my name.”
“How old are you, Hershel? Tell me how old you are.”
“Say I’m two years old.”
“Hold up this many fingers,” said Norwood.
“He don’t know about that,” said Mrs. Remley. “But he can blow out a match.”
When Norwood reaches his home in Ralph, Texas, he invites the Remleys to stay over, but they depart in the night, absconding with “a television set and a 16-gauge Ithaca Featherweight and two towels.”
In the course of the novel, Norwood winds up in New York City where he’s gone to collect $70 he’s owed by a Marine Corps buddy. At one point he winds up on the Lower East Side where he encounters some “boys roasting marshmallows over a smoldering mattress.”
Norwood says, “You boys having a big time?”
“‘It’s a campfire,’ said one. He was wearing huge comic sunglasses and had his head tilted back to keep them on. He offered Norwood a blackened marshmallow from the end of a straightened out coat hanger.
“‘I believe I’d rather have one right out of the sack. They ain’t gonna taste like anything cooked over hair.’”
Hollywood took three runs at Portis, twice with True Grit and again with Norwood, but while none of those movies are awful, they aren’t a patch on the books. Even the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit, which wisely uses as much of Mattie Ross’s narration as possible in voiceover, doesn’t match the book, because you just want more of the voiceover. Portis is like P.G. Wodehouse: The dialogue is great, but the narrative, the way he puts things, largely goes missing in the films.
Most people who know about Portis at all know about him because of True Grit, and that’s fine. It’s a wonderful book, and Mattie Ross is one of the great characters in American literature. But all of his novels are uniquely great, and all of them are full of equally indelible people (and at least one indelible creature: Joann the Wonder Hen, the College-Educated Chicken). Donna Tartt called him “our greatest living American voice,” a judgment I would not dispute.
Portis was that rare bird, a newspaperman who kept a novel in his bottom drawer and then actually quit and went off and finished it. He could have had a great career as a journalist—he rose to become the London bureau chief of The Herald-Tribune. Thank goodness he decided to go home to Little Rock and be funny instead.
He was intensely private, refusing interviews and declining to have his picture taken. I met him once, in Little Rock, where I’d gone to attend a literary festival. He agreed to meet me on the condition that I promised not to write about it. We met at a coffee shop and sat outside and cussed the newspaper business. He was friendly and soft-spoken, and once he was absolutely sure I wasn’t going to write about him, fairly forthcoming. I asked at one point if he was working on another book. He said yes, but it was taking some time. “I’m slow,” he said. I said I was willing to wait. Then he signed a couple of books for me and he was gone. Nothing much had happened, but I felt insanely lucky. You don’t get to meet your heroes every day.
Gringos, his last novel, came out in 1991, and every year since I’ve scanned the announcements of new fiction, hoping there would be another Portis title. But the news today of his death at 86 put that hope to rest. I can’t say I took the news well. The world just got a little emptier, and a lot less funny. No one is ever going to fill those shoes. Still, he gave us five excellent novels, novels no one else could write, novels so good they can be read and reread until the covers fall off. Was he the greatest writer of his generation? For my money he was, but he was certainly my favorite writer of his generation, and that’s enough. Mattie Ross and Norwood Pratt and Raymond Midge and Jimmy Burns and Yvonne Phillips (“It’s Yuh-von”) will live as long as people read books. And that’s more than enough.