Tag Archives: Charles Portis

Charles Portis, True Grit

I have no idea I’ve only just gotten around to reading True Grit. I loved the Coen Brothers movie (which I’d been thinking was recent, but is a decade old now). The book is, as is often the case, better.

True Grit is a Western. A hired hand named Tom Chaney robs and kills 14-year-old Mattie Ross’s father. Mattie is precociously sober and pretty much the head of her household already–she does all her parents’ accounting–but also has a taste for Biblical eye-for-an-eye justice. She travels to Oklahoma in the dead of winter to collect her father’s body and Chaney’s debts. To that end she hires a dissolute but reportedly gritty marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Cogburn joins forces with LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger already on Chaney’s trail. Their attempts to leave Mattie safely in town do not work out for them.

They say my article is too long and “discursive.” Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a “graphic” writing style combined with educational aims.

Mattie is writing her own story fifty years after the fact and Charles Portis uses deliberate technical flaws as characterization. Mattie is rigidly formal, and opinionated, and when she thinks the world needs her opinion on a thing she’ll digress as much as she feels like, thank you. Mattie never uses contractions and puts words she considers vernacular or slangy in quotation marks, like “stunt” or “cowlick.” This is another assertion of her opinions, on language. These aren’t part of her vocabulary, she’s quoting words everybody else uses.

Mattie’s religion is fire and brimstone and accounting: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.” That aside, Mattie isn’t humorless and True Grit is a funny book. Mattie has a dry wit, but she’s also sometimes not all that self aware. It can be hard to tell when she’s joking. At one point bandits demand Mattie explain the legal papers they’ve taken off a train. We get this passage:

It was a cashier’s check for $2,750 drawn on the Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, to a man named Marshall Purvis. I said, “This is a cashier’s check for $2,750 drawn on the Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, to a man named Marshall Purvis.”

In context, the repetition is hilarious–but is this Mattie’s deadpan attempt to convey her boredom, or has she stumbled into clumsy phrasing because she’s so pedantic about money?

Mattie writes about money with precision. She doesn’t say her family has land in Arkansas, she says her family has “clear title” to it. She remembers what she paid for everything and exactly what Tom Chaney stole from her father after killing him. But Mattie doesn’t love money for its own sake. She asks Rooster, “Why do you think I am paying you if not to have my way?” For Mattie money is control, something in short supply for a teenage girl in nineteenth century America.

Mattie’s father was in Oklahoma to buy ponies. She wants to sell the ponies back to the dealer, who doesn’t want them back. Her starting price is $300 but she eventually negotiates him into paying $325, about twenty dollars a head. The next day she returns and buys one pony back for ten. This happens through force of will more than anything. Mattie just presses harder, never concedes, and throws in a couple of legal threats, and somehow the dealer finds himself agreeing to everything she wants. The next day he’s sick, like Mattie’s drained him; she gives the impression she could kill people by staring at them too hard.

I saw the John Wayne version of True Grit once. It’s not good. It’s a close adaptation of the book but still manages to miss the point. It thinks Rooster is the hero–because, hey, he’s played by John Wayne, right?–and relegates Mattie to a supporting role. Kim Darby is miscast; she’s a 20 year old playing Mattie as a smart and stubborn but more or less ordinary teenager. Mattie is in over her head, but Darby’s Mattie is in over her head much farther.

LaBoeuf picked up a rock and threw it in my direction. It fell short by about fifty yards.

I said, “That is the most foolish thing that ever I saw!”

Mattie the adult narrator doesn’t seem much different from the 14-year-old self she’s describing. This is not because Mattie never grew up. She was already almost her adult self at 14.

From the minute she arrives in Oklahoma Mattie is taking care of other people’s responsibilities. She retrieves her father’s body for her family. She prods the law into moving against Tom Chaney. She puts Rooster’s semiliterate expense accounts in order. The same bandits Rooster’s been chasing ask her to tally up their loot. One of the questions True Grit asks is what makes an adult? Mattie doesn’t always know what she’s doing, but for all her faults she’s more responsible and just more together than most of the chronological grownups she meets.

Rooster and LaBoeuf are impulsive and petty and spend the trip alternately boasting and bickering and needling each other. They waste hours and a good chunk of their rations in an impromptu skeet shooting competition because for some reason it’s important to prove who’s the better shot. Rooster’s life is a long series of bad decisions and evasions of responsibility. He rode with Quantrill’s Raiders in the Civil War. Afterwards, failed as a husband and father and proved too incompetent to run a business. He supported himself by robbing an army paymaster and later a bank. He doesn’t notice any contradiction between his past and his work as a marshall. He certainly has no problem fudging his expense accounts, to Mattie’s annoyance, and he’s obviously lying when he claims he’s only ever killed in self defense.

If you have a passing familiarity with literary irony it won’t surprise you to learn the true grit of the title belongs to Mattie. Rooster and LaBoeuf are traditional Western hero types–LaBoeuf the dashing Texas ranger, Rooster the rough but wily drifter. They’re supremely useful in a Western plot but in ordinary life both are goddamn overgrown children. Mattie has the will of a freight train and survives a trip into the frozen wilderness and the loss of an arm, and she’s honest, educated, sober, and on top of her mundane responsibilities. At least, she’s on top of her responsibilities up to the point she decides to ride off after Tom Cheney. Mattie’s biggest flaw is her vengefulness; it makes her more like Rooster.

When a novel is in first person it’s often interesting to ask why is the narrator telling this story, and who do they think their audience is? Mattie’s tried to sell her writing but hasn’t had much luck with editors. I think Charles Portis meant us to assume Mattie is really telling this story to herself.

Fifty years later Mattie is a successful banker and pillar of the community. She’s also uptight, cranky, and strange. Her neighbors say Mattie never married because all she loves is money and her church, though as she observes herself she’s not the kind of woman most men of her era were looking for. People laugh at her behind her back. This is understandable; Mattie is in many ways a silly person. She’s rigid, stern, moralistic–she’s a stock character type, the unpleasantly respectable pillar of the community who turns up in small-town comedies. Mattie claims people “slander” her because she has “substance.” This is how she saves her pride.

Something that’s occasionally true of good stories but much more often true of bad ones is that every character is who they appear to be from the start. Most stories set characters like Mattie up to knock them over. A few stories give them unexpected depths. In True Grit we see the depths first and then realize Mattie grew up to resemble Margaret Hamilton in the sepia-toned bits of The Wizard of Oz.

The novel’s first line says “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” Mattie’s story is her proof she has a true, hidden self who isn’t who people believe she is, or would believe. Her decades-old adventure is so core to her sense of self that after Rooster died Mattie had him buried in the Ross family plot, though they hadn’t spoken in twenty years. Her neighbors laughed harder.

Sometimes a novel or a movie seems to sneer at a character, and want the audience to sneer too. Not a real villain, just somebody stuck-up or buffoonish who exists to be the butt of the narrative’s jokes. The wrong partner in a romantic comedy, say. It can be an interesting exercise to imagine who that character might turn out to be in a story that followed them instead. What’s their hidden self? True Grit is that story for a judgmental, rigidly religious banker from small town Arkansas who’s probably the comic relief in the stories her neighbors tell about themselves.