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Charles Portis, elusive author of 'True Grit,' dies at 86
“True Grit,” a bestseller was his biggest success.

by Roy Reed

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Charles Portis, the publicity-shy author of “True Grit” and a short list of other novels that drew a cult following and accolades as the work of possibly the nation’s best unknown writer, died on Monday at a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospice. He was 86.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, his brother, Jonathan, told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Portis was in his early 30s and well established as a reporter at The New York Herald Tribune in 1964, when he decided to turn to fiction full time. The decision astonished his friends and colleagues at the paper, among them Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and Nora Ephron.

He had covered the civil rights movement in the South: riots in Birmingham, Alabama; the jailing of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany, Georgia; Gov. George C. Wallace’s attempt to stop the desegregation of the University of Alabama. And he had been assigned to a coveted post, London bureau chief. His future in journalism was bright.

But he said he was heading home; he was going to move into an Arkansas fishing shack and write novels.

“A fishing shack!” Wolfe recalled in his book “The New Journalism.” “In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”

Within two years Portis had published his first novel, “Norwood.” It told the story of Norwood Pratt, a naïve ex-Marine from East Texas on a road trip to collect a $70 debt. Along the way he encounters, among other things, a con artist and a chicken that can play tick-tack-toe.

“Norwood” set the pattern for Portis’ use of misfits, cranks and sly humor in his fiction.

Two years later came “True Grit,” a bestseller and his biggest success. A tale of the Wild West, it revolves around the grizzled, irascible federal marshal Rooster Cogburn, “an old one-eyed jasper that was built along the lines of Grover Cleveland.”

Like “Norwood,” “True Grit” was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. And like “Norwood,” it was turned into a movie, twice — in 1969, with John Wayne in the Cogburn role (for which he received an Academy Award), and in 2010, starring Jeff Bridges and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. (“Norwood” became a movie in 1970 starring Portis’ fellow Arkansan Glen Campbell.)

The narrative voice of “True Grit” is that of a self-assured old woman, Mattie Ross, as she recalls an adventure she had in Arkansas’ Indian Territory when she was 14, on a quest to track down her father’s killer with Cogburn’s help.

Portis wanted her to sound determined to “get the story right,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2012. The book has virtually no contractions, and the language is insistently old-fashioned.

One of Mattie’s first impressions of Cogburn, who patrols the territory out of Fort Smith, is harsh. She finds him in bed at 10 o’clock in the morning, fully clothed and hung over.

“The brindle cat Sterling Price was curled up on the foot of the bed,” she says. “Rooster coughed and spit on the floor and rolled a cigarette and lit it and coughed some more. He asked me to bring him some coffee and I got a cup and took the eureka pot from the stove and did this. As he drank, little brown drops of coffee clung to his mustache like dew. Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone.”

The dialogue throughout has the same tone. In one scene Cogburn confronts four bandits across an open field:

“Lucky Ned Pepper said, ‘What is your intentions? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?’

“Rooster said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience! Which will you have?’

“Lucky Ned Pepper laughed. He said, ‘I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!’

“Rooster said, ‘Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!’ and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits.”

Between 1979 and 1991, Portis published three more novels, “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). Like his first two, they relied on deadpan humor, oddball characters and occasional bursts of melodrama.

In “The Dog of the South,” the narrator, Ray Midge, drives to Mexico from Little Rock in pursuit of his wife, who has run off with her first husband and Ray’s Ford Torino. In “Masters of Atlantis,” two men found a sect based on wisdom from the lost city of Atlantis. And in “Gringos” an American expat in Mexico gets involved with UFO enthusiasts and archaeologists searching for a lost Mayan city.

All were reissued in paperback in 1999 and 2000 by the Overlook Press after Esquire magazine ran an article by Ron Rosenbaum proclaiming Portis America’s “least-known great writer.”

“Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face,” Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times in 2010. “The trick of his books,” he added, is that “they pretend to be serious.”

He went on, “In one way or another the subtext of all these novels is the great Melvillean theme of the American weakness for secret conspiracies and arcane knowledge, and our embrace of con men, scam artists and flimflammers of every sort.”

In his later years Portis produced a sparse collection of magazine articles, notably for his Arkansas friend William Whitworth, the longtime editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also wrote a few short stories for The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Oxford American.

Jay Jennings, an Arkansas writer and friend, compiled a collection of Portis’ work that included excerpts from his newspaper reporting on civil rights during the early 1960s. It also included a short memoir, “Combinations of Jacksons,” and a three-act play, “Delray’s New Moon.” The collection, “Escape Velocity,” was published in 2012 by Butler Center Books in Little Rock.

Portis shrank from the attention his more celebrated novels attracted. He steadfastly refused to be interviewed, although he made himself available to talk about his life for this obituary. When drawn into public gatherings, he dodged photographers. But he didn’t like to be called a recluse or compared to the likes of J.D. Salinger. He pointed out that his name was in the Little Rock phone book.

Ephron, a friend from his New York days, talked about his penchant for privacy. He was charming, she told The Times in 2010. “But he was a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a phone. The Trib had to make him get one. So even back then the pattern was there.”

Charles McColl Portis was born on Dec. 28, 1933, in El Dorado, an oil town in southeast Arkansas, to Samuel Palmer Portis, an educator, and the former Alice Waddell. He grew up in various towns in the region, including Hamburg, where he went to high school.

After graduating he worked as an auto mechanic and, in 1952, at 18, joined the Marines over the strong objections of his father. He served in Korea during and after the war there and left the service as a sergeant.

After enrolling at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, he wrote for the student paper, The Arkansas Traveler, and the local paper, The Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his tasks at The Times was handling country correspondents, who were known for their eccentric spelling and matter-of-fact reporting on the ailments and family events of local citizens.

“My job was to edit out all the life and charm from these homely reports,” he said in the 2012 interview.

After graduating with a journalism degree in 1958 he was a reporter for The Memphis Commercial Appeal and a reporter and columnist for The Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. He joined The Herald Tribune in 1960. After reporting from the South, he was assigned to London, where he was the bureau chief for a year before deciding to become a novelist.

Portis never married. Besides his brother Jonathan, he is survived by another brother, Richard.

Portis’ reluctance to talk to the news media may have been traceable to his days as a reporter, when intruding on people’s lives was part of the job description. Mattie, his narrator in “True Grit,” may be voicing Portis’ own feelings when she speaks of the reporters who had sought her out to tell them her story of Rooster Cogburn.

“I do not fool around with newspapers,” Mattie says. “The paper editors are great ones for reaping where they have not sown. Another game they have is to send reporters out to talk to you and get your stories free. I know the young reporters are not paid well and I would not mind helping those boys out with their ‘scoops’ if they could ever get anything right.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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