True Grit by Charles Portis. Forget the film adaptations, the unfashionable genre and the kitsch cover, this is a good book: shrewd, amusing and superbly written. This review first appeared in Nudge Books (now NB).
This is an easy book to ignore or underrate. It’s less well known than the two films that have been made from it, and then it’s a Western, now horribly unfashionable. The story is good enough, but the best things in it are the least likely: quality of writing and a sort of humorous realism. A serviceable plot made brilliant by superbly worked characterisation and narrative isn’t what you’d expect from a much-filmed Western, but there you have it.
It opens abruptly with a characteristically terse and opinionated summary of the plot premise by Mattie Ross, the narrator:
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.
It’s all there from the beginning; the flavour of the narrative, the aggressive–defensive tone, the attention to detail and above all money, and the readiness to pass judgement. Within a dozen pages Mattie’s character has been ‘got in’, not through tedious or artificial exposition, but by implication. She is naive, priggish, unyielding, apt to quote the Bible and the price of things, and her storytelling is full of amusing irony as she unwittingly reveals herself.
Little Frank [Mattie’s younger brother] loves fun at the other fellow’s expense and the more he thinks it tells on you the better he loves it. We have always liked jokes in our family and I think they are all right in their place. Victoria [Mattie’s sister] likes a good joke herself, so far as she can understand one. I have never held it against either one of them for leaving me at home to look after Mama, and they know it, for I have told them.
It isn’t a caricature, however; she has a certain likeability and there’s something different under the self-certainty and grit. She’s also narrating long after the events described, which means she’s revealing both what she was and what she became. While the characterisation can be deliberately, comically obvious at times, it’s also a subtler business.
Portis shows a shrewd appreciation of human nature, sceptical but generous and amused, and all the principal characters are memorably individual, while even the walk-ons are distinctive. Except for the excessively virtuous Maddie, most of them are no better than they ought to be, but none of them are altogether one way or another in the matter of good and evil.
Much of the pleasure comes from the language. True Grit has its own self-complete, authentic-feeling but super-articulate dialect, much like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books. Here Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn describes parting from his wife (take the sics as read):
She taken a notion she wanted me to be a lawyer. Running a eating place was too low-down for her. She bought me a heavy book called ‘Daniels on Negotiable Instruments’ and set me to reading it. I never could get a grip on it. Old Daniels pinned me every time. My drinking picked up and I commenced staying away two or three days at a time with my friends. My wife did not crave the society of my river friends. She got a bellyful of it and decided she would go back to her first husband who was clerking in a hardware store over in Paducah. She said, ‘Goodbye, Reuben, a love for decency does not abide in you.’ […] I told her, I said, ‘Goodbye Nola, I hope that little nail-selling bastard will make you happy this time.’
Cogburn is the marshal hired by Mattie to capture her father’s killer; he is the man with the original true grit. Mattie and Cogburn make for an unlikely but workable pair, both gritty, one righteous, the other a one-eyed casual killer who ‘loves to pull a cork’. Their peculiar relationship stands at the heart of the book, and especially what you might call its two endings.
Not everyone likes the way True Grit finishes, but I think it’s a masterstroke of realism, slightly melancholy, not without a touch of humour, full of implied but hard-to-analyse meaning, and wholly convincing.
I’ve seen both films, each good enough in its own way, and last read a Western as a boy, but neither familiarity with the basic story nor unfamiliarity with the genre meant a damn. The plot, though simple, has enough in it to bear retelling, and the big pleasures lie elsewhere. It’s worth noting that True Grit is the only one of Portis’s five novels that’s a Western; he just happens to have written a subversive period piece that accidentally became a genre icon. Anyone can enjoy this.