Charles Portis has died and he was the funniest novelist since Mark Twain, but it’s easy not to know that. His work barely grazed the mainstream, despite going at least two for five in his attempts to write the great American novel. It isn’t fair. This man put William Shakespeare in the shithouse.
He mostly wrote about a specific place in midcentury southern Arkansas, where he was born, and it was the Arkansas of it all that blew me away at first. My grandpa is from a non-town in southern Arkansas that is most famous for a bridge out of it. He calls using the microwave “electrocution.” My wife didn’t understand his accent for a year. When I asked him what he thought of the moon landing, he told me with confidence that “Howard Hughes coulda gone to the moon in 1950 if he wanted to bad enough. Ain’t nobody can make me care about some lousy old rocket.”
I had never seen that guy in a novel. Then I read Charles Portis, and it turned out my grandpa wasn’t unusual at all, he was just extremely from southern Arkansas, and even though he’s been in California for 65 years, he never really left it. Arkansas is a state of mind and Portis was peerless at capturing it. A pretentious person might even say his main character was Arkansas, even though a main character should really be a human being or friendly animal.
In 1969 Portis came as close as he ever did to mainstream success: His novel True Grit got turned into a John Wayne movie. Though it got Wayne his only Oscar, whatever virtues the film had didn’t make a particularly strong case for the source material. John Wayne and his co-stars, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby—a twenty-something actress playing fourteen-year-old Mattie—had between them about half an ear for the music of Portis. The Coen brothers did better by True Grit in 2010, but Charles Portis, author, still hasn’t gotten his due.
That may have had something to do with his heroic aversion to doing press. He pretty much never agreed to interviews, especially promotional interviews. He didn’t network with other literary types. He rarely published. Most of his books fell out of print. By all accounts, he just wanted to be left alone to drink a beer. There are only a few photos of him, in which he generally looks like a captured Bigfoot.
Here’s how you know Charles Portis wasn’t J.D Salinger: One of the photos is with John Wayne, and Portis looks like he absolutely could not give a shit that he is standing next to John Wayne. In 1969, that makes you approximately the coolest man alive. And whatever Portis’ resistance to publicity and celebrity cost him, it also conspired to create an air of mystery about him, like he was this grand secret, the genius lying low in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was a club into which you were initiated by solemn oath: Once a Charles Portis fan meets another Charles Portis fan, they are literary blood brothers.
You’d expect a near-forgotten cult novelist beloved by other writers to be “difficult,” or to “require context.” But Charles Portis wrote five of the funniest, most accessible novels you will ever read. Not one of his books is an unreadable postmodern cinder block. And this is central to his genius.
It is hard to be funny for the duration of a novel. Go look up a list of the “funniest” books of a given year and you’ll find two basic types: comedians’ memoirs—loosely organized collections of spec jokes and “well, duh,” essays about depression—and novels that make you say “ha!” every fifty pages. Portis’ novels have real, actual laughs on nearly every page. Before reading him, I didn’t know that was possible.
The entertainment value of his work can trick the unwary into thinking it’s not about much. Unfortunately, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos actually are, in a phrase that would have probably pissed him off, “novels of ideas.” Or one idea, anyway: In these five novels, Portis wrote America.
His plots—a fourteen-year-old girl avenging her father’s death, an obscure power struggle between sectarian cultists, an aspiring teacher driving to Honduras to recapture his wayward wife after she fled his math lessons and “weekly embraces”—are all about America’s obsessions, weaknesses, and incurable fixations. His grifters and drifters show us who we are: gullible, suspicious, and highly susceptible to advertising. And his cast of charlatans have mastered the American art of self-invention, which the American reader almost reflexively admires. The books are screwball, but not trivial. It’s the interest in the carnies who make the world go round that makes his work ring true.
Portis sharpened his talent and trained his ear as a journalist, covering everything from Elvis Presley to the Nashville Sound to the civil rights movement. He could destroy a crackpot’s credibility by repeating the right detail about their lifestyle. One of his best pieces was an article about attending a KKK rally. Stranded among murderous ideologues, Portis coolly observes:
By 10:30 p.m. one of the crosses had collapsed and the other was just smoldering. Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.
Pathetic! To Charles Portis, a car can tell you all you need to know about the measure of a man. It’s an extension of him that drives it and amounts to his full history and psychological profile. And a car in need of repair makes you a fool, a clown, a bum. It’s a reliable metric for finding out if someone is decent and what their story is. That’s why The Dog of the South gets so much mileage out of two guys in a car who don’t know each other. That’s all you need, if you know about cars.
Old-school beat reporting also gave Portis something crucial to being funny on paper, and that’s a virtuoso ear for found dialogue, which can be the best comedy there is. I once heard a woman fighting with someone on her cell phone say, “Look, I was born on the fucking CUSP of Aries,” and the decontextualized proclamation still makes me laugh every few days when I should be thinking about something important. Any of Portis’ novels has a hundred lines like that one. At some point everybody goes to the store and hears somebody say the craziest thing they ever heard; Portis knew all of these lines by heart and summoned them at will. People say wild shit if you listen to them.
Here is an excerpt from Norwood, the most joke-dense of Portis’ novels. It’s about an aspiring country singer who somehow missed the news that Hank Williams has been dead for years. He’s talking to a bread delivery man.
“How much does a job like this pay?” said Norwood. “A bread job?”
“Well, it don’t pay as much as heavy construction work but you don’t have to work as hard neither. I used to drive a D-8 cat till I hurt my back. Didn’t do anything while I was on workmen’s compensation. Just went to the show all the time. I like The Road Runner.”
“Yeah, I do too.”
“I could watch that scutter for an hour.”
“I believe I could too.”
The bread man began to rumble with quiet laughter. “That coyote or whatever he is, a wolf or something, every time he gets up on a clift or somewhere with a new plan, why the Road Runner comes along on some skates or has him some new invention like a rocket or a big wrecker’s ball and just busts that coyote a good one.” He laughed some more, then fell into repose. In a minute or two his face clouded with a darker memory.
“Noveltoons are not any good at all,” he said. “It’s usually a shoemaker and a bunch of damn mice singing. When one of them comes on I get up and go get me a sack of corn or something.”
That scene might as well be from a documentary about the Deep South. The dialogue is stuff I’ve heard before, on occasions when my grandfather has felt generous enough to share his opinions about Hanna-Barbera vs. the superior Looney Tunes. What I haven’t heard before is that dialogue being punctuated with “in a minute or two his face clouded with a darker memory.”
The specificity of the scenario, the laser accuracy of the dialogue, all wrapped in deadpan description. Not only is Portis capturing an increasingly obscure southern folkway and attitude, he’s making you see the crazy in the mundane.
Capturing the exact sound of a delivery guy in 1960 talking about Wile E. Coyote is one kind of cultural anthropology that Portis could toss off while making it look easy. Another is a working-class Southern attitude of “you can’t get one over on me. I can’t be fooled.” I’m reminded of my grandpa again, in the middle of a totally unrelated conversation, remarking with disgust, “Spider-Man! You can’t fool me. A boy can’t swing from no web.” I suspected that had been bugging him for fifty years. This happens all the time in Portis novels. That observational detail was the key to his comedic success—he wrote about the real world and was an expert on it.
His stories, all of them picaresque, had the appearance of plainness of craft—well-crafted things tend to appear plain because they don’t need ornamentation. He got more mileage out of “throw these two guys in a car” than Jonathan Franzen got out of the entire known world. There’s a deceptively simple sturdiness to them that conjures the “are you sure Hank done it this way?” posture of outlaw country, until you realize Portis was more of a Roger Miller fan and Roger Miller had a song called “My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died.” Portis’ novels, like Miller’s songs, start with three chords and the truth and unfurl into chaos. The plainness makes you not expect the madness.
All of Portis’ people and places are specific. He had his beat, his areas of interest, and he stayed there, never courting fame or breakout success. He stayed in Arkansas, a place he believed you couldn’t ever quite get out of, and lived his life. But it’s in specificity where we can find and express the universal. Portis’ novels about losers from Arkansas have aged so well because he understood something about America: We’re a profoundly individualistic country, and that makes us a country of con artists, cultists, scammers, and hustlers sitting around thinking hard about cartoons. Once you learn that, you’ll never get fooled.