December 20, 2010

THAT'S NOT THE SUBSTRATA; IT'S THE FUNDAMENT:

Charles Portis' 'True Grit' story aims for revenge, redemption and loss: The 1968 novel, which has been reissued to promote the new film remake, is a balancing act between the goals of a teenager and a U.S. marshal in the West in the 1870s. (David L. Ulin, 12/19/10, Los Angeles Times)

"True Grit," rather, operates in the tradition of Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man" and David Shetzline's "DeFord," both of which were published, perhaps not coincidentally, within a few years of Portis' book. Laconic, Western, trafficking in the substrata of American mythos, it also has a lot in common with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," as Donna Tartt points out in her afterword to a new edition of the novel released to promote the Coen brothers' movie remake, which opens Wednesday. Like Twain, Portis is a master of voice, of deadpan narration played for comic effect. And like Twain also, he respects his young narrator as a human being with a fully developed moral sensibility, even when the adults in the novel don't.

The story is pretty basic: 14-year-old Mattie Ross, of Yell County, Ark., hires a U.S. marshal named Rooster Cogburn to go after the man who shot and killed her father in nearby Fort Smith. It is the 1870s, and the pursuit takes them into Indian Territory, which, Cogburn keeps insisting, is no place for a teenage girl. He's right, but one of the abiding truths of the novel is that it is Mattie, and not Cogburn — or LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins them — who is the real adult here, the only one with a sense of what's at stake. "I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task," she tells us early in the novel, in a typically matter-of-fact aside.

What this means is that Mattie will do what's necessary, no matter how challenging or difficult. The same is true of Cogburn, who functions as a kind of opposing axis, a force of chaos and ambiguity. If your only memory of him comes from Wayne's tough yet charming film portrayal, you're in for a surprise; the Cogburn of the novel is resolutely amoral, a former member of Quantrill's Raiders, the Confederate guerrillas who, in August 1863, massacred more than 150 civilians in Lawrence, Kan. Portis is subtle about the implications, but the message is clear: Here we have an untamed man, honorable only to a point, and willing to do almost anything to achieve his ends. That this might also be said of Mattie is one of the potent ironies of "True Grit," which becomes, in its way, an unlikely love story, the saga of how Cogburn and Mattie meet their match.


As is so often the case, the critical embrace of an artwork depends on the inaccurate belief by the Bright that challenges our mythos, when it actually affirms it.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 20, 2010 6:38 AM
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