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.


  1. And you can see from the excerpt there that the Coens were understandably happy to lift the dialogue straight from the page and put it unscathed into the script. There’d be no reason to change it.

  2. Good stuff. Looking forward to the movie, and it’s evident the book is worthwhile in its own right.

    Mattie reminds me of the precocious narrators of Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven.

  3. Leroy, the film is redolent of Malick, quite heavily. There’s a honey-hued sense of nostalgic yearning cut right through it, and a sense of classical deference, to such an extent that it serves as a kind of brochure for the cinematic idea of the old west and scarcely has the chance to stand alone.

  4. Not sure I get you, Lee: on the one hand “redolent of Malick” is one of the strongest recommendations I could imagine; on the other, the idea of being a “brochure” for classic-Western nostalgia is not so positive.

  5. Redolent of but too referential and deferential; nothing like as good but heavily influenced by. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable film, True Grit, but it made me want to rewatch the superior films it seems to be doffing its cap to and seems over-consciously trying to emulate.

  6. We’ve chosen this for our March book group read. Looking forward to it immensely. I always loved Rooster Cogburn, the follow-up film more than the original True Grit for the sparkling repartee between Wayne and Katherine Hepburn.

  7. I admit, I had no interest in seeing the Coen film, nor did I want to read the book, which my husband picked up a while ago… And then over Christmas, I wound up at the cinema with my inlaws watching True Grit. I loved it, and it definitely made me interested in reading the original source material. Normally I am the type who prefers to read the book before the movie, but in this case I can honestly say that if not for the movie I would never approach the book.

  8. As I recall even as an old woman Mattie is rather uncompromising.

    The book and the film (the original, I’ve not seen the remake yet) do differ somewhat. It’s impossible to speak to them though without spoilers.

    I have to admit, I rather enjoyed this one too. Fast paced with zingy characters. Just what one wants from a Western really.

    We’ll have you on Riders of the Purple Sage next John!

    1. I read Riders of the Purple Sage recently – and adored it. It had everything I wanted from a Western, plus it was surprisingly romantic.

  9. Thank you very kindly for the link, John, and I’m very glad you liked the book. I also hope you’re moved to read more Portis, though TRUE GRIT is a bit of an odd duck in relation to his others (which I may have said to you, or in a place you would have read it, before).

    For the record, I had no trouble with the sections of the book you regard as dull. Cogburn going on about his marriage and failed restaurant were wonderful, I thought, and I particularly liked his description of trying to run a restaurant by yourself as similar to “a man fighting bees.”

  10. A shortish book which is nevertheless overlong were amongst my thoughts on The Dog Of The South, the only of Portis’ works I’ve read. It is primarily the dialogue which makes that one worth a look too. In terms of plot Portis is very obviously making it up as he goes along. He has a nice way of putting really quite zany stuff in a calm, measured, very low key, deadpan manner. There are some other writers who can do it too and it is something I am a sucker for.

    “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October. They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also taken from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles.”

    I’m not eloquent enough to explain exactly why, but for some reason it’s the ‘and perhaps some other articles’ that gets me. The book has the kind of tone that made me feel as if Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas were in my head reading it to me.

  11. Oh and I forgot, there’s a travelling salesman in it too who is flogging God-awful self-help books which apparently ‘really put Shakespeare in the shithouse.’

    The knack of lunacy stated in such an understated way is also found on almost any occasion Ignatius opens his mouth in A Confederacy Of Dunces, incidentally.

  12. For those of you who lived “True Grit”, I would recommend Portis’ “The Dog Of The South”, a thoroughly enjoyable read. It was forgotten about until five or six years ago when it came back into print. For my money, better than “True Grit.”

  13. Chris, the reason “Dog of the South” reminded you of “F&L in Las Vegas is bc Hunter Thompson loved loved loved Charles Portis. I love them both, too

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