February 17, 2020


Charles Portis: True Grit novelist dies aged 86 (Clémence Michallon, 2/17/20, The Independent)

Portis was born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, one of four children of a school superintendent and a housewife whom Portis thought could have been a writer herself. As a child, he loved comic books and movies and the stories he learned from his family. In a brief memoir written for The Atlantic Monthly, he recalled growing up in a community where the ratio was about "two Baptist churches or one Methodist church per gin. It usually took about three gins to support a Presbyterian church, and a community with, say, four before you found enough tepid idolators to form an Episcopal congregation."

He was a natural raconteur who credited his stint in the Marines with giving him time to read. After leaving the service, he graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1958 with a degree in journalism and for the next few years was a newspaper man, starting as a night police reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and finishing as London bureau chief for the New York Herald Tribune.

Fellow Tribune staffers included Wolfe, who regarded Portis as "the original laconic cutup" and a fellow rebel against the boundaries of journalism, and Nora Ephron, who would remember her colleague as a sociable man with a reluctance to use a telephone. His interview subjects included Malcolm X and JD Salinger, whom Portis encountered on an aeroplane. He was also a first-hand observer of the civil rights movement. In 1963, he covered a riot and the police beating of black people in Birmingham, Alabama. Around the same time, he reported on a Ku Klux Klan meeting, a dullish occasion after which "the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders."

Anxious to write novels, Portis left the paper in 1964 and from Arkansas completed Norwood, published two years later and adapted for a 1970 movie of the same name starring Glen Campbell and Joe Namath.

Portis placed his stories in familiar territory. He knew his way around Texas and Mexico and worked enough with women stringers from the Ozarks in Arkansas to draw upon them for Mattie's narrative voice in True Grit. He eventually settled in Little Rock, where he reportedly spent years working on a novel that was never released. Gringos, his fifth and last novel, came out in 1991.

Portis published short fiction in The Atlantic during the 1990s, but was mostly forgotten before admiring essays in Esquire and the New York Observer by Ron Rosenbaum were noticed by publishing director Tracy Carns of the Overlook Press, which reissued all of Portis' novels.

OUR LEAST-KNOWN GREAT NOVELIST: Do Charles Portis's Trailways dreamers possess the mysteries of the universe? (RON ROSENBAUM, January 1998, Esquire)

LISTEN, I BOW to no one when it comes to expertise on the myth and reality of secret societies in America, in distinguishing the dark nimbus of paranoia and conspiracy theory surrounding them from the peculiar human truths at their heart.

As the author of the still-definitive study (which appeared first in these pages) of America's ultimate secret society, Skull and Bones, I have seen the much-whispered-about photos that the all-woman break-in team took of the interior of the Skull and Bones "Tomb"--complete with its candid shots of that sanctum sanctorum of America's clandestine ruling-class cult: the Room with the License Plates of Many States. I could tell you the secret Skull and Bones nicknames of the class year of D 154, in the coded Skull and Bones calendar of the years.

(Let's give a shout out to good old J. B. "Magog" Speed, for instance.)

I say I bow to no one, but that's not true. When it comes to knowing and limning the heart of the heart of the secret-society-esoteric-knowledge-weird-nickname-ancient-mysteries-ofthe-East racket, I bow--we should all bow--to one man, one novelist. Not Pynchon or DeLillo or any of the other usual suspects on the secret-society subject, but a maddeningly underappreciated American writer who in a brilliant and shockingly little-known novel has somehow captured more of the truth about this aspect of America, about the longing for Hidden Secrets, the seductions of secret societies, than all the shelves of conspiracy-theory literature. The only man to penetrate the true heart of dimness. I'm speaking of Charles Portis and his now-almost-impossible-to-find novel (suppressed by You Know Who?), Masters of Atlantis.

It's an indictment of the dimness of our culture that the film Conspiracy Theory made millions while Masters of Atlantis languishes in the recesses of secondhand bookstores, out of print, not even in paperback, and Portis gets neither the popular nor the literary-world acclaim that he deserves. In a way, Portis has not helped matters; he lives off the beaten path down in Arkansas with an unlisted phone number, doesn't do publicity, has never networked, and refused, politely but firmly, to talk to me for this piece.

Who is this man Portis? 

Posted by at February 17, 2020 6:49 PM