July 20, 2014


On the Trail of 'True Grit': A Tale Comes to Life (JAY JENNINGS, 7/16/14, NY Times)

On a January night in Fort Smith, Ark., on a desolate block off the main drag of Garrison Avenue, I was having a nightcap of Knob Creek on the rocks at Doe's Eat Place, after consuming two tamales with chili, a three-inch-thick eight-ounce filet and a couple of glasses of cabernet sauvignon. The motley collection of sports and historical memorabilia hanging on the walls cultivated a divey atmosphere consistent across Doe's eight Southern locations.

I was in this particular Doe's more for what it was than for what it is. By downing a whiskey in the winter in this rough-stone building, constructed in 1851 by Joseph Knoble as a brewery and now on the National Register of Historic Places, I was coming as close as I could in the present day to replicating the venue and circumstances that caused "a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney" to gun down Frank Ross in this town and start the revenge quest of 14-year-old Mattie Ross in Charles Portis's classic novel "True Grit." Chaney "went to a barroom and got into a game of cards with some 'riffraff' like himself," Mattie narrates. Then he "sulled up like a possum" before killing her father in the street as he tried to stop Chaney from confronting the gamblers he thought were cheating him.

I later learned of a similar true-life deadly quarrel outside the brewery in 1867, in which a man named McKenzie shot an unarmed Charles W. Brown, after the former "called him a d---d son of a bitch and told him to kiss (an indecent part of his person)," according to court records.

The old brewery is one of the few buildings that would have been standing in that tough town at the time the novel is set, the mid- to late 1870s. Joseph Knoble positioned it close to the Arkansas River so he could chip ice blocks out of it, I was told by the affable young barkeep at Doe's, going by the name of Trent Gallant (too corny for any novelist to make up). When I revealed to him my plan to retrace the novel's story, looping from Fort Smith through the modest mountains of eastern Oklahoma as do Mattie, the United States Marshal Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, he mentioned to me that the story had inspired a number of theme businesses in town, among them the five-year-old True Grit Tattoo. The tamales, a signature dish at Doe's, are also part of my itinerary, I explained: At a crowded triple hanging that Mattie attends early in the book, she finds a boy selling them from a bucket and tries the "cornmeal tube filled with spicy meat that they eat in Old Mexico," opining: "They are not bad." The ones at Doe's are better than that.

Posted by at July 20, 2014 10:09 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus