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Lost & Found: Cassandra Cleghorn on Charles Portis

Between its recent return to print and its 2010 Coen brothers adaptation, True Grit has been feeling the love as of late. This wasn’t always the case. This prescient Lost & Found from 2004 sees Cassandra Cleghorn appreciating Portis’s American epicbefore it was cool, before it was even cooler. (You can’t get much cooler than that.)

Until Overlook Press reissued Charles Portis’s True Grit, I was secure in the assumption that only I had discovered the greatness of this book. True, for the past few years Portis has been everyone’s favorite undeservedly forgotten novelist.  In 1998, Ron Rosenbaum proclaimed him “perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America.” But Rosenbaum favors Norwood and The Dog of the South, and Roy Blount Jr., a fan of Portis’s from the beginning of the novelist’s career, says that Masters of Atlantis reaches “even higher into comic empyrean” than Portis’s other novels. I thought True Grit was safe, eclipsed by the success of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. But the secret is out now, and Portis is moving into center ring. Rosenbaum’s prediction is that Portis “will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a twentieth-century Mark Twain.”

It’s impossible to read this novel—or to read about it—without hearing Twain. Mattie Ross is Huck’s literary cousin: she, too, is a poor, white, verbally gifted near-orphan from the deep South, surrounded by trash and hucksters, making her way—in the company of an unlikely surrogate family—through the American frontier. But Mattie has no time for nostalgia or bellyaching or odes to the river or scalawag orgies—even those that aren’t “pison long and tiresome,” as Huck puts it. Most of all, Mattie does not have time for time, which is all pipe-puffing boys on rafts have. She has a mission, which she sets out in her first two sentences: “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 of 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.” Hooking up with Cogburn and LaBouef (pronounced LaBeef”), a Texas Ranger who puts on airs, Mattie does what she sets out to do: shoot her father’s low-life murdered with her father’s Colt dragoon, retrieve all but one gold piece, and return home: “This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.”

Though the plot has the purity of Greek drama, the novel’s real strength is its narrator. Mattie’s sharp-edged voice wins over Rooster and, finally, begrudgingly, LaBoeuf, even as the two men are worn down by the girl’s will—a will that is all the more affecting for its mix of moral intensity, vanity, and suppressed grief. “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains,” Mattie says when offered by Rooster a swig of “double-rectified bust-head from Madison County.” Portis renders in Mattie’s voice a virtuosic mix of bluster and spinster—of super-flat Western tones and Sunday school cadences through which this “unnatural child” practices her self-fashioning.  At the end of her story, Mattie reflects on marriage: “I never had time to fool with it. A woman with brains and a frank tongue and one sleeve pinned up and an invalid mother to care for is at some disadvantage, although I will say I could have had two or three old untidy men around here who had their eyes fastened on my bank. No, thank you! It might surprise you to know their names.” If, after bringing her father’s murderer to justice, Mattie disappoints the reader by returning home, alone, to care for her sickly mother, she does even this with a vengeance—with a renunciatory “No, in thunder!” that owes as much to Melville as to the pieties of the nineteenth century parlor. But even here True Grit surprises. In Mattie Ross, finally, Portis gives us something that Twain could not conceive: a sympathetic character made of equal parts Huck Finn and Widow Douglas, one who damns herself to heaven even as she fights like hell.

Maybe my love of the novel is just narcissism, after all. “You are [your mother’s] strong right arm,” Mattie’s lawyer writes to her, “and a pearl of great price to me, but there are times when you are an almighty trial to those who love you.” This book feeds my suspicion that sauciness, obstinacy, pride, belligerence, and impulsiveness are just what other people call it when your strength of characters makes them feel small. In this novel Portis is as much troublemaker as storyteller, and as much storyteller as poet—a poet for whom the best language is the kind that sticks in your craw: the pure, delicious grit.

Cassandra Cleghorn’s poems have appeared in journals including The Paris Review, Yale Review, Seneca Review, Prairie Schooner, Western Humanities Review and Southwest Review.  With the quartet, Merge, she has performed her poems at venues including the Bowery Poetry Club and Naropa Institute; their debut CD was issued in 2007 and the second is in production.

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