Fat Books & Thin Women

Reread: Charles Portis’s True Grit

I’ve been out of Macedonia for a couple weeks on an awesome vacation, the kind so good that I didn’t want to come home and begin seriously considering abandoning the Peace Corps in order to keep traveling around Egypt. (I also went to Jerusalem and Jordan, where I had hoped to reenact Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade in its entirety.)

One of the last books I read before going (or maybe the last – at this point, let’s face it, I don’t remember and am too lazy to check my reading list) was Charles Portis’s True Grit. Although I’ve written about plenty of other things on this blog lately, I feel like it’s been all about Charles Portis – that everything I write has a Portisian undercurrent. “You think you want to read Never Let Me Go because the characters are so well developed? Forget that, read True Grit, which has probably two of the greatest characters ever written.”

If you’re familiar with True Grit it’s probably because of the new Coen brothers film based on the book. The novel is a short one, and in typical Portis fashion revolves around a quest, though it’s unique for its setting in time and place. The book opens with Mattie Ross describing the death of her father at the hand of, well, a hired hand, Tom Chaney. Mattie travels to recover her father’s body and deal with the business (buying ponies) he left incomplete, and to hire a marshal to help hunt down her father’s killer and bring him to justice. She selects Marshal Rooster Cogburn because she hears he is a man of “true grit,” and they are joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who has for months been hunting the killer of Mattie’s father.

I can hardly be an impartial reviewer of this book, because I am a raving fan of Charles Portis. He is one of the best writers in America, and that so few people are familiar with his work continues to torment me. He is funny but without ever appearing to try too hard, and in Mattie Ross he has probably written the greatest character, the greatest voice, ever. Just look at how she describes her father’s killer:

Tom Chaney rode his gray horse that was better suited to pulling a middlebuster than carrying a rider. He had no hand gun but he carried his rifle slung across his back on a piece of cotton plow line. There is trash for you. He could have taken an old piece of harness and made a nice leather strap for it. That would have been too much trouble.

Stepping back from the ledge of unconvincing if enthusiastic fandom, if only slightly…Ross is writing True Grit as an older woman, and Portis perfectly captures this crotchety tone of her voice, the frequent biblical references.

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.

Without straining it or making too pointed motions (“relationship developing here”) he shows how Mattie and Rooster gain mutual respect for each other – he saves her life, she buys him a headstone for his grave.

There’s really no way I can convince you to read this book, but please: read this book. You won’t regret it. You won’t regret anything you read by Portis. Some quotes, to do a better job convincing you than I can.

Captain Finch looked LaBoeuf over, then said to Rooster, “Is this the man who shot Ned’s horse from under him?”

Rooster said, “Yes, this is the famous horse killer from El Paso, Texas. His idea is to put everybody on foot. He says it will limit their mischief.”

Or another LaBoeuf focused one:

[LaBoeuf] said, “You are lucky to be traveling in a place where a spring is so handy. In my country you can ride for days and see no ground water. I have lapped filthy water from a hoofprint and was glad to have it. You don’t know what discomfort is until you have nearly perished for water.”

Rooster said, “If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies that says he never drank from a horse track I think I will shake his hand and give him a Daniel Webster cigar.”

“Then you don’t believe it?” asked LaBoeuf.

“I believed it the first twenty-five times I heard it.”

Man, does this make me want to read True Grit again.



That trip sounds amazing (though I do advise against abandoning the Peace Corps…lol)! I’ve never read Charles Portis but I think he’s now going to be added to my to-read list. I rarely reread books anymore, though I did constantly as a kid. The one exception to that is Harry Potter! It’s great to return to familiar characters and settings and can be so helpful in noticing the little things that can make an author so great. Glad you enjoyed your reread!

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

you’re right, abandoning the peace corps in favor of a few more weeks of travel would probably be a poor life choice. i’m psyched that you’re thinking of reading some portis – he is such an awesome & funny writer.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’ve been curious about this since I started seeing hype about it over the movie adaptation. You mentioned Never Let Me Go, is True Grit similar to Ishiguro’s style? Because I don’t connect well with him.

Comment by Shannyn (Libellule)

their styles are worlds apart – i think i only mentioned ishiguro in this post because i read “never let me go” around the same time that i reread “true grit.” portis was such a relief after ishiguro’s, whose style i don’t like much either.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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[…] True 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) it’s also a movie…well, two movies and (b) it’s short, and (c) it’s funny, and (d) it is two hundred pages of showing us that westerns are awesome and we should be seeking out more of them. Mattie is a great, strong female character, and Rooster Cogburn not only has one of the best names in fiction but is funny to boot. Read the review […]

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