From the December 2010 issue
I HAVE SUNG the praises of Charles Portis’s work so often, each time straining to hit the right note, that I am becoming a crank. Which might seem fitting: Portis’s fiction abounds in cranks. But one thing his cranks are not is effusive. Recently the Oxford American, which was to present Portis a lifetime achievement award, asked me for a brief tribute. (I wasn’t there for the ceremony. All Portis said, by way of accepting the award, was that he doubted he deserved it.) This is what I sent:
“The only adequate response to a Charles Portis novel is to jump in the air, do a flip, and wind up your feet, like Cheetah, Tarzan’s chimp, when he is intensely pleased. That’s why there are so many broken things in my reading quarters.”
I spoke my heart. But those words are unbefitting. No one in a Portis novel expresses his appreciation, or anything else, in such an over-the-top manner. His characters may be loony, but always level-headed. Take Squanto, the talking blue jay in Portis’s strangest novel, Masters of Atlantis. Any ordinary novelist would exploit an articulate blue jay for no end of emotional chatter. You know how blue jays in nature can get carried away. Portis directly quotes Squanto only once: “Welcome June. To Mystery Ranch. Welcome June. To Mystery Ranch.” I italicize that speech because it is so in the text, not I think for show, for emphasis, but to imply how any talking blue jay would sound. Yet as underplayed as he is, Squanto is a vivid character. He also affords the author (which is to say, in Portis’s case, the reader) a good deal of narrative mileage.
Squanto’s very presence—he is a gift from an enigmatic admirer—implies that his master, Austin Popper (a subordinate crank in the international order of Gnomons), is getting ideas. Squanto helps to propel, though not in the direction Popper has in mind, an extraordinary sequence in which the June in question, the woman whom Squanto addresses, is fecklessly— by Popper, that is—wooed. And as Squanto ages and evinces an inner life (“Popper fed a glazed cherry to Squanto. The jaybird was getting old. One wing drooped and he no longer talked much in an outright way. During the night he muttered.”) and dies, we realize that our story, however delusional and even inconsequential it might seem to the casual observer, is moving briskly along.
Now I’ve looked back over what I’ve written, and, Phooey! For one thing, did you ever see such complicated sentences? A Portis sentence is simplicity itself. The harder I try to analyze Portis’s stories as straight-facedly as he tells them, the more over-intricate I get.
He’s funny. He’s the funniest writer I know of, in part because his characters don’t realize it at all. Most of them are downright humorless, without necessarily realizing that either. From Squanto to Rooster Cogburn, they are all dead-serious birds. (Ray Midge, the narrator of The Dog of the South, can see why people would refer to him sometimes as rat-faced, but he believes his sharp features might more accurately be called birdlike.) They evoke intense affection from lovers of Portis’s fiction, but not because they are trying to, nor because they are capable of getting it from one another.
True Grit, Portis’s most rousing tale, is in its way a love story—all the more poignant for its sheer lack of romance. It’s a true-blue loyalty story, anyway. Portis’s characters have character; they tend to do what they say they are going to do. And in their almost heart-breakingly slantwise ways, some of them feel for one another. If the Coen Brothers don’t do True Grit justice—you know how Cheetah used to jump up and down jabbering when he was mad?