February 10, 2011
Charles Portis: True Grit
I was given this book by a friend last year who thought I’d like it (spoiler: he was right), but I didn’t get around to reading it until the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation started raising its head in all the right places.
True Grit (1968) until recently was most famous as a John Wayne film. Now it’s most famous as a Coen Brothers film. Where’s the justice for a fine book with a life of its own? Multimedia exposure means the story is in danger of becoming so well known that readers might feel they don’t need to bother with the book at all. It’s easy to summarise: Mattie Ross, fourteen-year-old, decides to avenge the death of her father by catching his murderer.
Mattie narrates the book too, from her old age looking back, but without any distancing of her precocious childhood voice. “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.” ‘Then’ was the 1870s, shortly after the Civil War. Times have changed between the story happening and the telling of it, though perhaps not that much: Mattie rebukes a bus conductor for calling black passengers “niggers”, then refers to them herself as “darkies”. The story takes Mattie and the reader from Arkansas to ‘Indian Territory': we are in prime western land. Yet if this is a western, it’s one where men are men but girls are more.
Mattie seeks her revenge on her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, in a roundabout way. First she and her friend Yarnell go to the city police station (“we found two officers but they were having a fist fight and were not available for inquiries”), then to see a public hanging.
I have since learned that Judge Isaac Parker watched all his hangings from an upper window in the Courthouse. I suppose he did this from a sense of duty. There is no knowing what is in a man’s heart.
At the gallows, “the man covered [the convict's] head with a hood and went to his lever. Yarnell put a hand over my face but I pushed it aside. I would see it all.” And see it all she does, dragging the reader willingly along, as she strikes a hard bargain with an auctioneer over her father’s chattels, and persuades Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her find Tom Chaney. (“I said, ‘I would like to talk with you a minute.’ He looked me over. ‘What is it?’ he said. I said, ‘They tell me you are a man with true grit.'”)
From the start it is clear to see that the appeal of True Grit for filmmakers has been Portis’s dialogue. It is funny, sparky, surprising: pure Coen brothers. He has the rare knack of being able to progress the story through exchanges, and build up his characters at the same time. Rooster Cogburn operates on the fringes of the law, which is fine by Mattie, and she has no time for Sergeant LaBoeuf, who comes appointed by her mother to find Chaney, but has failed to manage it so far.
I said, “Why did you not catch him in Monroe, Louisiana, or Pine Bluff, Arkansas?”
“He is a crafty one.”
“I thought him slow-witted myself.”
“That was his act.”
“It was a good one. [...] Well, if in four months I could not find Tom Chaney with a mark on his face like banished Cain I would not undertake to advise others how to do it.”
“A saucy manner does not go down well with me.”
“I will not be bullied.”
He stood up and said, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”
“One would be as unpleasant as the other,” I replied.
After a time, the reader can begin to feel some sympathy with LaBoeuf. Mattie’s sass and determination starts to look awfully like insolent stubbornness (well, she is a teenager). In some ways the story is an account of how this shrewd, proud young girl bests one grown man after another. “There are times when you are an almighty trial to those who love you,” observes her beloved Lawyer Daggett back home.
Despite the spark and zing of the dialogue, there are times when True Grit, at just 215 pages, nonetheless feels too long, particularly in the second half when a couple of characters begin to reminisce about their past exploits for what seems like dozens of pages. Nonetheless, it comes good in the end, where we even get a coda which may soften Mattie in our eyes somewhat. “Time just gets away from us,” she observes from her old age, and the reader driven through the book at an indecent rate by its narrative energy may know what she means.