is the genuine article—a book so strong that it reads as myth. It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.” And here it is—here it is, again.As Wolfe notes of Portis’s enviable success: “He made a fortune… * In office south of Times Square, as stubborn proof that the dream of the Novel—with its fortune-changing, culture-denting potential—never really died, even at a time when journalists were discovering new narrative ranges, fiction-trumping special effects.(When Rooster, in his cups, offers sick Mattie a spoonful of booze, she intones, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains”).But Mattie also re-creates, poignantly and despite herself, her stark discovery of a world gone suddenly wrong, and what had to be done to set it right.
Portis (who turns seventy this year) was thirty at the time, not yet a novelist, just a newspaperman seemingly blessed by that guild’s gods.(Even Ray Midge, the ever-observant milquetoast who tells his story in 1979’s stints on comedy—in one of the funniest set pieces to be found in all of Portisland, Rooster, La Boeuf, and a Choctaw policeman suddenly break into an escalating marksmanship contest, pitching corn dodgers two at a time and trying to hit both, eventually depleting a third of their rations.Mattie’s precocious capacity for hard-bargain-driving (selling back ponies to the beleaguered livestock trader Stonehill) is revealed in expertly structured repartee, and her rock-ribbed responses to distasteful situations amuse with their catechism cadences.To those men of the cloth, for example, who might conceivably take issue with her belief that there’s something sinister about swine, she says: “Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26–33.”—was the daughter of a Methodist minister.) Her steadfast, unsentimental voice—Portis’s sublime ventriloquism—maintains such purity of purpose that the prose seems engraved rather than merely writ.When Roy Blount, Jr., says that Portis “could be Cormac Mc Carthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny,” he may be both remembering and forgetting , which for all its high spirits is organized along a blood meridian, fraught with ominous slaughter.This omnivorous little book has a high metabolism, digesting everything from homemade store signs (“I Do Not Loan Tools”) and military-base graffiti to actuarial come-ons and mail-order ads for discount diamonds.Appropriately enough, the characters are constantly chowing down. Ratner (formerly the “world’s smallest perfect man,” before he porked out) and Norwood’s new sweetheart, Rita Lee Chipman, are described as having eaten their way through the Great Smoky Mountains.His situational Marxism would have been hard to predict. Slaughter” in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1933, Charles Portis—sometimes “Charlie” or “Buddy”—had grown up in towns along the Arkla border, enlisted in the Marines after high school and fought in the Korean War.Upon his discharge in 1955, he majored in journalism at the University of Arkansas (imagining it might be “fun and not very hard, something like barber college”), and after graduation worked at the appealingly named (1968), “You will sometimes let money interfere with your notions of what is right.” If Marx had decided to loosen up, Portis wouldn’t have gone to Korea, to serve in that first war waged over communism, and (in the relentless logic of these things) wouldn’t have put together his first protagonist, taciturn Korea vet Norwood Pratt, in quite the same way. Instead of writing five remarkable, deeply entertaining novels (three of them surely masterpieces, though which three is up for debate), Portis could be in England still, grinding out copy by the column inch, saying “cheers” when replacing the phone.(The latter novel’s narrator, Jimmy Burns, is also a Korean War vet, and Norwood reveals to Rita Lee that he killed two men “that I know of” in that conflict.) Portis’s current reputation as a keen comedian of human quirks, though well-deserved, is limiting.Put another way: After cars, Portis is most familiar with the classification and care of guns.