John Preston

There’s so much mystery around Charles Portis that we’re not even clear whether he’s alive

A review of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings. Despite critical acclaim and a devoted fan base, the American author seems destined to remain on the sidelines

There's so much mystery around Charles Portis that we're not even clear whether he’s alive
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Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany

Jay Jennings (ed)

Overlook Duckworth, pp. 364, £

The American writer, Charles Portis, has had what some novelists — the more purist ones — might regard as an ideal life. While his books have seldom been big-sellers, his fans sink to their knees at the mention of his name.

In the mid 1980s, two bookshop employees in New York were so smitten with Portis’s then out-of-print novel, The Dog of the South, that they bought up all 183 hardback copies on the market and put them in their bookshop window. The books sold out in days. Contacted in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, where he writes in an office behind a bar called Cash McCool’s, Portis said that he was ‘surprised and pleased by the attention’.

Over here, he’s best known for True Grit — but more for the two film adaptations than for the novel itself. He did, however, spend two years as the London bureau chief of the Herald Tribune in the early 1960s when he covered Harold Macmillan’s 70th birthday party and once interviewed a witch who had a jackdaw called Hotfoot Jackson perched on her shoulder.

To cap this alluring combination of modest sales, critical esteem and low output — he’s written just five novels in 60 years — a lot of people seem to think that Portis is dead. If the air of mystery around him was pretty thick before, rumours of his demise have rendered it yet more opaque. Even this collection of journalistic pieces, short stories and tributes from admirers has an oddly valedictory feel to it, although its editor, Jay Jennings, is at pains to emphasise how hale Portis is. Aged 80, he still lives in Little Rock, about as far away from America’s literary heartland as you can get.

For anyone coming to Portis’s work for the first time, one of its great pleasures is how sharply observed and funny it is — like Cormac McCarthy with jokes, as one of the contributors puts it. These qualities are as evident in his journalism as they are in his fiction.

In 1963, Portis wrote a piece for the Herald Tribune about a Ku-Klux Klan rally in Birmingham, Alabama. Along with the flaming crosses, big hoods and other Klan accessories, he noted that ‘there were a lot of bugs in the air too, knocking against the crosses and falling into open collars’. At the end, ‘The Grand Dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.’

In a piece about the origins of country music in Nashville, Portis is intrigued by the astonishingly high mortality rate among country singers — ‘We were burying ’em around here like animals for a while,’ one man tells him. And in his perpetual quest for peace and quiet on a tiny budget, he goes in search of the cheapest motel room in America. In the ominously named town of Truth or Consequences in New Mexico, he finds somewhere for just three dollars a night.

Rather than wallow in the room’s squalor, Portis — typically — has an eye for its redeeming features. ‘It wasn’t so bad, beaten down with use and everything gone brown with age, but honorably so, not disgusting, shabby but clean, a dry decay.’ That said, anyone trying to get out of the bed would have needed a grappling hook. ‘The central crater in the mattress had been wallowed out by a long series of jumbo salesmen, snorting and thrashing about in troubled sleep.’

Donna Tartt, another contributor, is a huge fan of True Grit: ‘I cannot think of another novel — any novel — which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes.’ As well as capturing the spoken idioms of the American south as artfully as Mark Twain, Portis created one of the great fictional child narrators in True Grit’s heroine, 14-year-old Mattie Ross. After ‘a short man with cruel features’ called Tom Chaney shoots her Pa, Mattie hires the booze-sodden marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to hunt him down.

When the novel was first published in 1968, it was reviewed by Roald Dahl:

I was going to say it was the best novel to come my way since... Then I stopped. Since what? What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last 20?

But for all the bouquets that are tossed in Portis’s direction, you get the feeling that he is destined to remain on the sidelines — and that this is how both he and his admirers prefer it. As a footnote here informs us with a telling blend of outrage and pride, ‘The new Portable Sixties Reader, edited by Anne Charters, does not mention Portis at all.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £9.49. Tel: 08430 600033