A Portis Reader

by Robert Dumont


Nobody re-reads better than Charles Portis. In fact, nobody re-re-reads better than Portis. Thus, having his previously published short stories, best known magazine articles, his one instance of autobiography, and a rare interview, assembled in a single volume is most welcome. But intrepid editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, Jay Jennings, has dug deeper and struck gold with several items of which even the most devoted Portis readers were unfamiliar.

The complete text of Delray’s New Moon, the only play Portis wrote, is to be found in the pages of Escape Velocity. The play concerns a group of fretful seniors who are about to be displaced from a residential hotel that’s being turned into a nightclub. It also contains what is probably the only mention in American literature of the town of Antlers, Oklahoma, where Portis may have passed through on one of his epic car journeys.

An account of one of those journeys that Jennings discovered had been hiding in plain sight in the archives of the Los Angeles Times since 1967. It is a road narrative of a drive from LA to La Paz, Mexico, by Portis and a companion in a used, half-ton 1952 Studebaker pickup truck. The piece features many of his signature motifs: the poignant (if absurd) quest; an abundance of closely and humorously observed details with a gallery of quirky characters encountered along the way; Mexico itself—its landscape and its people; the mechanics involved in keeping a motor vehicle running while traversing inhospitable terrain. (It’s often been noted that Portis knows more about cars than any other writer in American letters.) A somewhat inconclusive ending serves to highlight the fact that the voyage itself is more important than the destination. Once arrived in La Paz, Portis sells the truck. As he’s flying back to Los Angeles, he surveys the Baja Peninsula and notices that it appears to be “more barren and forbidding from the air than at truck level, and if I had fl own it first I’m not sure I would have gone overland.”

Portis filed gripping, first-hand accounts of the events in Birmingham. He also covered a Ku Klux Klan meeting held just outside of town which “for all its cross-burning and hooded panoply is a much duller affair than one might expect…”

Escape Velocity includes several examples of Portis’ writings from his newspaper days starting with his time as a reporter for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis when he covered the death and funeral of Vera Presley, Elvis’s mother, in 1958. Portis writes: “After the brief graveside rites… Elvis leaned on the casket and said, ‘Oh God, everything I have is gone. Goodbye, darling, goodbye, goodbye… ’ ”

He then moved over to Little Rock as a reporter and columnist for the Arkansas Gazette. Though he claimed he never got the hang of being a columnist, his Our Town pieces demonstrate a deep affinity for the culture and language of his native turf. He describes typical Southern family reunions where “when it came time to eat the honor of returning thanks usually fell to the windiest old man there. He would send a long, thunderous blessing rambling up to the skies, and you would have thought that we had all just been delivered from the fiery furnace, instead of sitting down to eat some sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top.”

By 1960, Portis was off to New York City to work for the New York Herald Tribune. His initial assignment was as a beat reporter on local topics but in 1963 he became the paper’s chief correspondent covering the upheavals of the Civil Rights movement in the South. As a Southerner writing for a northern newspaper he was afforded a unique perspective.

Portis filed gripping, first-hand accounts of the events in Birmingham in May of that year when there were riots and bombings and confrontations between blacks and the local authorities, including Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor. He also covered a Ku Klux Klan meeting held just outside of town which “for all its cross-burning and hooded panoply is a much duller affair than one might expect…”

He was on the scene in June to see Governor George Wallace “standing in the schoolhouse doorway” in a symbolic but futile attempt to block the federally ordered integration of the University of Alabama. A day later, Portis was reporting on the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Then in August he would cover the rally in Washington, DC, at which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Shortly afterwards, Portis took on the assignment of heading up the Herald Tribune’s London bureau—“Karl Marx’s old job,” he called it, since the author of The Communist Manifesto had once worked as the London correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in the 1850s. After a year of being bogged down with administrative tasks and various “management comedies,” he pulled the plug on his journalism career to try his hand at writing fiction.

As the story gets told by Tom Wolfe, his colleague at the Herald Tribune and a fellow Southerner, “Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas… It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”

His first novel, Norwood, appearing in 1966,  is a short, picaresque tale of ex-Marine (as Portis himself was) Norwood Pratt, a good old boy from Ralph, Texas, who lives with his sister and her eccentric husband, works in a gas station, and aspires to perform on the Louisiana Hayride radio show. One day he sets out for New York City to track down a former buddy from the service who owes him $70. The trip is undertaken by various means of transportation, including a car that a shady character named Grady Fring asks Norwood to deliver to a garage in Brooklyn. When Norwood realizes that it’s actually a “hot” car he ditches it in the back woods of Indiana then sets off hitchhiking and later hops a freight. Of course, the fellow who owes him the money has long since left town by the time Norwood arrives in New York. After several days and a series of further mishaps and misadventures including a fizzled romance with a beatnik girl, Norwood departs from “the hateful town,” in a Trailways bus.

But he finds “loves on a bus” with a pretty girl from Georgia named Rita Lee Chipman. During a stopover in North Carolina he meets up with Edmund B. Ratner, “the world’s smallest perfect fat man” and rescues a chicken—Joann the Wonder Hen—from a sideshow. This entourage travels on to Memphis where Norwood’s service buddy is and he gets his $70 back. Eventually, he and Rita Lee and Joann make it back to Ralph and Norwood, something like the conquering hero, reclaims his household from his sister and brother-in-law and settles the score with Grady Fring.

True Grit followed in 1968. It is a “quest” story with a revenge motive that Portis initially conceived after reading some memoirs in the Western Frontier Library Series published by the University of Oklahoma Press. In his fictional tale, a 14-yearold Arkansas girl named Mattie Ross enlists the aid of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, a federal marshal in Judge Isaac Parker’s court, to help her apprehend “a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney [who] shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life…” The killer has since fled to Indian Territory and is thus beyond the reach of the local authorities. Over there, he packs it in with a band of cutthroats known as the Ned Pepper Gang and participates in a train robbery of the Katy Flyer at Wagoner’s Switch. Mattie and Rooster and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is also
pursuing Chaney, team up and cross the Arkansas River into “The Territory,” which the young girl will experience as a savage, brutal, lawless place—calling it “a howling wilderness.”

The journey the three of them take in tracking the gang can be roughly plotted as a triangle that consists of a line drawn on a map from Ft. Smith towards McAlester to the southwest and passing through the Sans Bois Mountains. A second line proceeds eastwards towards the Winding Stair Mountains—where the violent action of the novel culminates—while a third line runs north, crossing the Poteau River along the way, and connects with Ft. Smith to complete the triangle. A journey of approximately 250 miles under daunting conditions!

True Grit was a best-seller and has been filmed twice. It is listed in Magill’s Masterpieces of American Literature alongside works by Melville, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Mattie’s adventures have been compared to those of Huck Finn. The genius of the novel that the movies never quite capture is Portis’ creation of the narrative voice of Mattie as she relates the story which unfolds as the memories of a “starchy” old spinster who proves to have had just as much “grit” as the hard hombres she was forced to consort and contend with.

The book is almost continuously in print and is arguably “The Great Oklahoma Novel.”

In 1979 Portis published his third novel—The Dog of the South. The arc of the book’s action takes a 26-year-old piddler named Ray Midge from Little Rock to Texas to Mexico to British Honduras and back to Little Rock. Midge is jolted into action when the credit card bills begin arriving in “bulky envelopes” after his wife runs off with another man. He tracks the two “lovebirds” to San Miguel de Allende but is too late to catch up with them.

In a bar called the Cucaracha he encounters Dr. Reo Symes, a medical doctor who “looked to be in bad health… There were dark bags under his eyes and he had long meaty ears. One eye was badly inflamed…” Dr. Symes is also on his way to British Honduras to try and con his mother out of a piece of property she owns in Louisiana.

The two of them pair up for the long drive south and there follows an extended talking jag, one of many on the part of Dr. Symes, extolling the genius of John Selmer Dix, an obscure person who “died broke in a railroad hotel in Tulsa … [and] was buried in Ardmore …” Dix is the author of a book of tips for traveling salesmen called With Wings as Eagles that Dr. Symes claims is “pure nitro.”

“This is the book you want on your night table right beside your glass of water… Dix is the greatest man of our time… He was the greatest writer who ever lived.”

When Midge remarks that “Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived,” Dr. Symes declares, “Dix puts Shakespeare in the shithouse.”

Midge eventually locates his wife in British Honduras after a hurricane and even manages to take her back to Arkansas for a short-lived reconciliation. All the while Portis relentlessly piles one hilarious episode upon another such that the critic Walter Clemons says reading  The Dog of the South “is like being held down and tickled.”

So what does Portis do next? After a 16-year hiatus he comes out with an even funnier book.

Masters of Atlantis is the story of Lamar Jimmerson, a credulous Hoosier doughboy, and Sydney Hen, a foppish and conniving Englishman who meet up on the island of Malta shortly after WWI. Both are attracted to various sorts of occult knowledge and esoteric lore, in this instance the text of a “little gray book, or booklet, hand lettered in Greek… [with] several pages given over to curious diagrams and geometric figures, mostly cones and triangles” which contains the secret wisdom of the lost continent of Atlantis. The book is the Codex Pappus, supposedly translated by Pletho Pappus, the head of an ancient and mysterious society of “Gnomons” whose members call themselves “Adepts.” The novel traces the fortunes of the society as it waxes and wanes over the ensuing decades while Jimmerson and Hen assume the role of Masters of the two principal branches of Gnomonry. It also features a character named Austin Popper, an adviser to Jimmerson, who is cut from the same mold as Dr. Symes with his gift of the gab and endless cockamamie schemes. Popper moves in and out of the story but is in finest fullthroated form in an extended sequence consisting of his testimony before a subcommittee of the Texas State Legislature investigating “the recent infestation
of the state by various cults, sects, communes, cells, covens, natures tribes, and secret societies.”

There is no specific, over-arching quixotic quest in the novel even if there are many “absurd” journeys along the way. The last one being the relocation of relics from the Gnomon Society’s “Temple” in Burnette, Indiana to a house trailer in Brownsville, Texas, where the two great Masters are to be reconciled and spend their final days.

This tour-de-farce is told in Portis’ typical understated style which makes the absurdities of the novel all the more absurd. Masters of Atlantis is an extremely funny book about a group of men who have absolutely no sense of humor.

In Gringos, published in 1991, Portis returns to Mexico—to the city of Mérida and the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s an adventure tale with typical Portis motifs woven into the action. The humorous aspect is part of the larger story that concerns a group of ex-pats, misfits, wooly academics, and UFO cultists who are in various ways seeking their fortunes in that part of the world. The main character is Jimmy Burns, a fellow from Louisiana who drives a pickup truck with a shotgun rack and plays the hand that circumstances deal him. He is involved both in the archaeological exploration of the area and the trafficking of Mayan artifacts. Burns also does a little bounty hunting on the side. The novel climaxes deep in the jungles of Guatemala with the rescue of a runaway girl who has been kidnapped by a Manson-like cult. The violent confrontation
between Burns and the leaders of the cult recalls the rescue of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn’s shootout with the Ned Pepper gang in True Grit.

No further novels have been forthcoming from Mr. Portis’ pen—or typewriter—as he remains the same two-fingered typist he always was going back to his newspaper days. All the subsequent shorter works that have appeared, Jay Jennings has collected in Escape Velocity. The book’s title is taken from a remark made by Ray Midge in  The Dog of the South: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.” Charles Portis himself is one example.

He has long maintained a home base in Little Rock, even with his lengthy forays south of the border and travels to other parts of the U.S. He currently resides in an apartment on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River. Although he does not do book tours or readings to promote his works or care to sit down for interviews, he is hardly the reclusive figure some have suggested. He enjoys the company of friends and family, follows current events as well as the fortunes of the Razorbacks football team, answers his telephone, and has even been known to share a beer and relate a story to out of town visitors from distant places like New York or Oklahoma.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 1. Jan. 1, 2013.