Fat Books & Thin Women

Charles Portis! Charles Portis! Charles Portis!
December 23, 2010, 11:49 am
Filed under: meme | Tags: , , , , , , ,

By dint of my being tragically separated from my library/the Philadelphia library system/bookstores, generally (I know, I know, I mention this every time I post) you, dear readers, have missed out on one part of my super-fandom. Believe it or not, Nabokov isn’t the only author I obsessively recommend to everyone who asks me, ever, for a book recommendation. No, there is another author who has that honor; but because I don’t have any of his books with me, and I do have some of Nabokov’s, this fine author is mostly free of constant mention on my blog.

Charles Portis.

The Blue Bookcase this week is asking for the one literary work their readers think is under appreciated. I can’t exactly choose just one work, because Charles Portis’s work as a whole is under appreciated. I know, I know, that his True Grit is getting some renewed attention now thanks to the new Coen brothers movie (I even saw that “True Grit” was being promoted on twitter – weird, weird, weird), and there’s a healthy group of well-known authors who profess to Portis love, but apart from that the guy doesn’t get much attention.

Portis, though, has got to be one of my favorite authors (tied with Nabokov, even). He’s a funny writer, but not the kind who uses obvious jokes; instead his books as a whole that are funny, so while I am reading one I am kind of halfway laughing at the tone of it, at the way his characters approach their worlds.

True Grit is a good one, and given the new movie it’s probably the one most people are going to be most inclined to read. I’m gong to reread it soon too, given how one of my friends thoughtfully uncovered an electronic copy for me. (Portis’s books aren’t available as ebooks. They were out of print for a while, but in the late ’90s were reissued by Overlook Press. For this I owe them a permanent debt of gratitude.) But it’s not my favorite, and it’s hard to choose which one is, and which is thereby most deserving of my “most under appreciated book” award. Masters of Atlantis I wasn’t a huge fan of, but Norwood, Gringos, and The Dog of the South are tough ones to choose from. The best way to convince you of the quality of Portis’s writing is to quote some of his writing, so excuse me while I head off to google…

Okay, so in The Dog of the South Ray Midge is trailing his wife, Norma, who’s run off with a “twerp,” Guy Dupree. A lot of Portis’s characters are marked by being more comfortable with things (cars, guns) than they are with people, and one of the funnier things about the book is that although he’s trying to get his wife back, Ray doesn’t concentrate too much on what Dupree is doing with his wife. Rather, it’s his stolen car that he’s concerned about. Here’s Ray Midge on the car he’s driving (see: not the better car that Dupree and Norma took): “There was a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That’s enough on the car for now.”

Or in Gringos – and bear with me, because I’m trying to sum up these plots in about a sentence each – Jimmy Burns is an American living in Merida, now out of work, who happens across a girl who has been kidnapped and then tries to recover her for the $2000 reward. My quotes, sadly, are the random children of google, but one day (in like two years) I will be able to reread the books and then do my traditional “review” that is nothing but an excuse to quote extensively. But here’s one from Gringos:

“Art and Mike said taking an intellectual woman into your home was like taking in a baby raccoon. They were both amusing for awhile but soon became randomly vicious and learned how to open the refrigerator.”

Portis’s characters tend to be headed on quests, which is one reason I like his writing so much. What can I say? I am a fan of the quest story. His descriptions of characters are spot-on, and the way they look at the world always seems a little off-kilter, but the funnier for it. And they don’t all have it, but most of his characters do have a certain type of innocence about them that’s interesting to see collide with, well, the rest of the world.

Here are more links for you. Thankfully there’s no shortage of Portis articles right now because of the new film.

The Author Behind ‘True Grit’: Hey! My old thesis advisor is in this article. See if you can pick him out…it’s through him that I started reading Portis.

The Very Unofficial Charles Portis Website: Not updated for a while, but there’s a collection of reviews and essays on Portis’s work.

The Elusive Charles Portis, Author of ‘True Grit’

Literary Blog Hop



I will admit that I’ve only just heard of True Grit and along with that I’ll admit that it’s because of the new movie that was just released by Joel and Ethan Coen. The mention that it was based on a book sparked my interest so I looked it up on goodreads and though I don’t usually read westerns, I thought it sounded promising.

Comment by everybookandcranny

i don’t read westerns either…true grit & blood meridian are the only ones i can think of reading since “buffalo gal” by bill wallace. (a childhood favorite…man, what a good book.) i love portis’s style though. i’ve heard that the coen bros pull a lot of lines directly from “true grit,” so if you like the tone of the film you’ll probably enjoy the book as well. i hope!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’ve never read anything by American humourists…Portis looks like an author I would like to try sometime…:)

Comment by Risa

Oh cool, so I’ve definitely heard about the movie True Grit but I didn’t realize it was a book. Have you read any Cormac McCarthy? How would you compare Portis to McCarthy?

Comment by Ingrid

weirdly, i always kind of think of mccarthy & portis in the same breath, but that’s only because of true grit & blood meridian. (that and the road are the only mccarthy books i’ve read.) those are the only two westerns that i can think of having read since i hit puberty. but their style is about as different as can be; portis doesn’t have any of that bleakness that characterizes mccarthy’s writing. doesn’t write those killer sentences that mccarthy does, but all his characters speak in this really striking & memorable & funny way.

now i want to reread true grit AND blood meridian.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

not heard of him, but know the film.
how does his style compare with Nabokov, as I’m a great fan of this writer.

Comment by parrish

not at all. i know i mentioned them in the same breath, but their styles are about as different as you can get. the nytimes article on portis has some good quotes from his work that’ll give you a better idea of his style. this other nytimes piece – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/magazine/12FOB-WWLN-t.html – more about the film quotes a lot from ‘true grit’ and gets into portis’s style, too.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Ooo, sounds good. I’ve put it on my wishlist.

Comment by Melody

Definitely adding True Grit. Will share this mi esposo who loves the Western.


Comment by debnance at readerbuzz

Adding the author to my TBR pile! Thanks!

Merry Christmas to you and your family. Have a wonderful time with them!

Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

Comment by gautami tripathy

I have heard great things about Gringos. It’s on my wishlist.

Comment by Laura

Your passion jumps off the page! I remember reading True Grit about two eons ago, and now I will make it a point to look up more books by Portis. Thanks for a fantastic post, and for the useful links.

Comment by Lisa Almeda Sumner

Ohhhhhhhhh…they sound so good.

I am new to this blog hop…nice to meet you.


Comment by Elizabeth

[…] Grit – as with Lehane, my Charles Portis fandom is a well-established thing. I choose True Grit, out of all his books (some of which I may like a little more) because (a) […]

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