An Evening with Roy Blount Jr. and Charles Portis

I dragged Karen to the Community Center last night and listened to Roy Blount, Jr. speak about the literary world and about his great friend and favorite author, Charles Portis, famous for writing the book True Grit and as well as other books, The Dog of the South and Norwood. Mr. Portis prefers the earlier version of the movie with John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glenn Campbell, Robert DuVall, and Dennis Hopper, while I prefer the Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon version directed and produced by the Cohen brothers. Before I knew of Charles Portis and his eloquence, I had watched True Grit thinking how it was wonderfully written. The book is written in the voice of Mattie Ross and she never uses contractions, very formally spoken as in the form of the times just prior to the twentieth century. Here is an example:

Mattie: “You do not think much of me, do you, Cogburn?”

Rooster Cogburn: “I don’t think about you at all when your mouth is closed.”

And lots of great humor and wisdom from a man who never married and never broached the topic of romance in his books, never wrote with the intent of being funny, just letting the absurd and the normal mix together to become unique and strange, as Mr. Blount phrased it last night, dynamic tension, the idea of laying normal conversation alongside the abnormal. In one of Portis books, a church woman engages the protagonist in a discussion about eternal reward and damnation, heaven and hell. “Isn’t it strange that people would be walking about in heaven and hell?” To which came the reply, “Is it not strange that we are walking about here on earth?”

Douglass Cruickshank wrote in an essay about Portis, “What’s rare, important and worth broadcasting about Portis’ work is that it precisely captures the sound, feel and vernacular sensibility of certain parts of America (the Southern parts, mostly) and certain kinds of Americans (usually the Southern kind) better than any other fiction writer save Mark Twain, who, if he were around, would certainly be a fan. Walter Clemons, reviewing “The Dog of the South” in Newsweek said that reading Portis “is like being held down and tickled.” I’d add that no one’s going to need to hold you down — you’ll find yourself begging for it. And that’s the toughest part of getting a jones for Portis: He hasn’t published a novel since 1991 and his last magazine article, “Combinations of Jacksons,” a memoir, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1999. But he’s held in such high regard by other writers that even the Atlantic piece was reviewed in the Washington Post.

Here is a flavor for Portis writing about the gastronomy of Southerner’s around the middle of the twentieth century when I was a kid and can recall all of these foods well. This is from an article by Ed Park, writing about Mr. Portis and his first book, Norwood, published in 1966, “…the characters are constantly chowing down. Edmund B. Ratner (formerly the “world’s smallest perfect man,” before he porked out) and Norwood’s new sweetheart, Rita Lee Chipman, are described as having eaten their way through the Great Smoky Mountains. Norwood’s decidedly humble (call it American) menu nails the country’s midcentury gastronomy with a precision that today takes on near archaeological value: canned peaches, marshmallows, Vienna sausages, cottage cheese with salt and pepper, a barbecue sandwich washed down with NuGrape, a potted meat sandwich with mustard, butter on ham sandwiches, biscuit and Br’er Rabbit Syrup sandwiches, an Automat hot dog on a dish of baked beans, Cokes and corn chips and Nabs crackers, a Clark bar, peanuts fizzing in Pepsi, a frozen Milky Way.

Here are some of my favorite quotes by Mr. Portis from True Grit and the reason I kept thinking to myself while watching the movie that the book had to be a wonderful read to have all these great lines:

“But I had not the strength nor the inclination to bandy words with a drunkard. What have you done when you have bested a fool?”

“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. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

“As he drank, little brown drops of coffee clung to his mustache like dew. Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone.”

“I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father’s death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. 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”

“On his deathbed he asked for a priest and became a Catholic. That was his wife’s religion. It was his own business and none of mine. If you had sentenced one hundred and sixty men to death and seen around eighty of them swing, then maybe at the last minute you would feel the need for some stronger medicine than the Methodists could make.”

“I bought some crackers and a piece of hoop cheese and an apple at a grocery store and sat on a nail keg by the stove and had a cheap yet nourishing lunch. You know what they say, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

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