September 5, 2007


A Sleeping Southern Giant (BENJAMIN LYTAL, September 5, 2007, NY Sun)

Midge, to whom the above quotes belong, is the hero of Charles Portis's hilarious 1979 novel "The Dog of the South" (253 pages, $15.95), which has just been reissued by Overlook Press. Mr. Portis has a cult following, but he deserves real popularity. [...]

There is usually a reason why an author has been overlooked, not always just, but explanatory all the same. In Mr. Portis's case, it may simply be that he hasn't taken himself seriously in the way Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis has; it may also be that his work too quickly calls up the names of so many other writers. But it's most likely that "True Grit" the novel (1968) was fatally overshadowed by "True Grit" the Oscar-winning John Wayne movie (1969), and that John Wayne's portrayal has soured and sucked the color out of Charles Portis's reputation.

The novel itself is a crisp adventure, almost a children's story, but it has a narrative tack that only adults may fully appreciate. Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl who drags Rooster Cogburn out into Indian Territory to avenge her father, writes about the experience from old age, having acquired a spinster's confident tongue. Her voice is at once young and old, as though Mattie's personality were preternaturally consistent, tempered early by biblical training and harsh reality. She doesn't even use contractions. "Some people will take it wrong and criticize me for not going to my father's funeral. My answer is this: I had my father's business to attend to."

Nothing is finer in this book than Mattie's occasional digressions on politics and Presbyterian schisms, or her tenacious arguments with stingy horsetraders and careless gunfighters. Mattie does not offer herself as humorous, as her onscreen counterpart does.

The point of the story is to contrast Mattie's idealism with Rooster Cogburn's rascality. Both are gritty, but in the book idealism wins the day, partly because it is so piquant on the page. This goes far beyond "pluck"; it is moral fiber, resonant and taut as Mattie's clean sentences.

It seems suspicious that Masters of Atlantis is the one of his books that's not in print...

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 5, 2007 7:56 AM
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