The Oddballs and Odysseys of Charles Portis

It was a source of some annoyance to Charles Portis that Shakespeare never wrote about Arkansas. As the novelist pointed out, it wasn’t, strictly speaking, impossible: Hernando de Soto had ventured to the area in 1541, members of his expedition wrote about their travels in journals that were translated into English, and at least one of those accounts was circulating in London when Shakespeare was working there in 1609. To Portis, it was also perfectly obvious that the exploration of his home state could have been fine fodder for the Bard: “It is just the kind of chronicle he quarried for his plots and characters, and DeSoto, a brutal, devout, heroic man brought low, is certainly of Shakespearean stature. But, bad luck, there is no play, with a scene at the Camden winter quarters, and, in another part of the forest, at Smackover Creek, where willows still grow aslant the brook.”

Everything about this grievance is pure Portis. There’s the easy erudition—knowing that an English translation of de Soto’s journey was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime—and the sly allusion, relocating Gertrude’s lament for Ophelia to a tributary of the Ouachita River. Then, there’s the layer cake of comedy, from the impeccably plucked place name, Smackover Creek, to the possibility that anyone else, even another Arkie, would be miffed that there’s no “The Two Gentlemen of Little Rock.” Most of all, though, there’s a sense of character: de Soto ripped out of the history books, set loose with his arquebus on the American frontier and Shakespeare liberated from the Norton anthology, following the news of the day, as desperate for ideas as any freelancer.

Portis knew from characters. His most famous novel, “True Grit,” published in 1968 but set mostly in the eighteen-seventies, is narrated by the indomitable Mattie Ross, equal parts Annie Oakley, Carrie Nation, and Captain Ahab. When we first meet her, she’s an old maid recalling the adventures of her youth in the Indian Territory. “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,” she explains, “but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” She has two Sancho Panzas in the search for her father’s killer: the one-eyed federal marshal Rooster Cogburn and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who never discloses his first name but pronounces his surname “LaBeef” and says things like: “I believe she is trying to hooraw you again.”

Portis’s other novels weren’t exactly Westerns—more like Southwesterns, Headed Easterns, and Getting Losterns—but they are all populated by equally memorable figures: Norwood Pratt, who drives all the way across the country just to get the seventy dollars a fellow-marine owes him; Professor Cezar Golescu, an alchemist experimenting with the auriferous qualities of creeping ragweed by testing soil types along the headwaters of the Pig River; Grady Fring, the self-proclaimed “Kredit King,” who sells hot cars and shoddy health insurance in Texarkana while serving as a part-time pimp with a “talent agency” in New Orleans; Lamar Jimmerson, who in exchange for his Old Gold cigarettes is given a supposedly sacred text with which he revives a cult called Gnomonism; and Joann the Wonder Hen, a college-educated chicken who wears a mortarboard and answers yes-or-no questions for a nickel.

A new volume by the Library of America, edited by the Arkansas journalist Jay Jennings, gathers all these characters and more, collecting Portis’s five novels together with his short stories and some of his journalism, including the parody of an advice column that ran in this magazine. It’s absurdly fun to follow his oddballs and their odysseys, but something more than fun, too. Portis’s genius went beyond character in the strictly literary sense, to reveal something about moral character and many somethings about the character of this country.

Portis was a character, too. Born in El Dorado, Arkansas, he grew up along the Louisiana border, moving between such places as Norphlet, Mount Holly, and Hamburg. Great-grandfathers on both sides of his family fought for the Confederacy; one of them was born the same year as Jesse James and lived long enough to tell Portis about the hundreds of federal mules that were set loose by fleeing Yankees in the canebrakes of the Saline River. His father, Samuel, was a schoolteacher and superintendent; his mother, Alice, the daughter of a Methodist minister, dabbled in newspaper writing, including a column called “Gal Thursday.” He had two younger brothers, Richard and Jonathan, and an older sister named Alice Kate, who generally went by Aliece to keep from being confused with their mother.

“I don’t mind his penis always being out. I do find his relentless suppression of the peasants a bit unseemly.”

Cartoon by Maddie Dai

The Library of America volume includes a spectacular if all too short essay titled “Combinations of Jacksons,” in which Portis recounts his childhood on the Gulf Coastal Plain. By the light of day, he and his friends assembled model airplanes and tried to swing from vines like Tarzan; by “dusk-dark,” when flying squirrels were gliding through the front yard, they’d go set their trotlines in streams. His formative exposure to literature came from the “funny books” he bought for ten cents apiece, featuring not only Batman and Superman but also Bulletman, the Sandman, Plastic Man, and Doll Man; one of his earliest forays into artistry involved, aptly, a mail-order course in ventriloquism. His family was chock-full of “strong and fluent talker[s] with far-ranging opinions,” like his great-uncle Satterfield Fielding, who, Portis writes, “may well have been the last man in America who without being facetious called food ‘vittles,’ ” and who convinced his great-nephew that dipping W. E. Garrett & Sons Scotch Snuff could protect him from tuberculosis.

There were a lot of tall tales, but a shortage of gasoline and candy bars: oil was being saved around the country for the war effort, and the sweets, local rumor had it, were being given to the German P.O.W.s at Camp Chaffee and to the Japanese Americans held in the internment camps at Rohwer and Jerome. Portis spent years trying to learn to breathe underwater with snorkels made from creek-bank reeds in case any of the Axis powers arrived in Arkansas and he couldn’t fight them off with his pinecone grenades. After he graduated from Hamburg High School, during the Korean War, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Jennings writes that Portis was turned away from officer training because he lacked “natural molars on the lower right side.” Still, he worked his way up from infantryman to sergeant.

Portis was given medals for his service; perhaps more significant, a corporal at Camp Lejeune gave him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” Later, when he enrolled at the University of Arkansas, he majored in journalism and worked for the Northwest Arkansas Times, editing “lady stringers” like his mother, who submitted social reports and gossip sheets. After that, he got hired as a reporter by the Commercial Appeal, in Memphis, and then the Arkansas Gazette, in Little Rock, covering everything from civil rights to rock and roll. He sent some of those clips to the New York Herald Tribune and got himself a job on the general-assignment desk. He moved to Manhattan and filed features about a Brooklynite with a pet lion, the National Barber Show convention, and his own failures with the “Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking” at the Bates Memorial Medical Center in Yonkers. During the ’62 newspaper strike, he worked briefly at Newsweek, where he met and dated Nora Ephron, who praised his “spectacular and entirely eccentric style” in her memoir, joking that it was so good it made him awful “at writing the formulaic, voiceless, unbylined stories with strict line counts” that the magazine required. Back at the Herald Tribune, he worked alongside Jimmy Breslin, Lewis Lapham, and Tom Wolfe. “He was polite enough not to roll his eyes when I asked if he might be related to the other Thomas Wolfe,” Portis remembered later, long after he’d been promoted to the paper’s London bureau, a post that he liked to point out was “Karl Marx’s old job.”

The dean of New Journalism had more than patience for Portis. In the 1972 manifesto that defined the movement, Wolfe memorialized his colleague and summed up his gear shift from journalist to novelist: “Portis did it in a way that was so much like the way it happens in the dream, it was unbelievable. One day he suddenly quit as London correspondent for the Herald Tribune. That was generally regarded as a very choice job in the newspaper business. Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific . . . he sold both books to the movies. . . . He made a fortune. . . . A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too god-damned perfect to be true.”

“A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later,” Portis once wrote. “They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.” It wasn’t the novelist speaking, but one of his characters, the narrator of his third book, “The Dog of the South.” Published more than a decade after “True Grit,” the picaresque novel is essentially one long monologue by Raymond E. Midge, a cuckolded Little Rock copy editor who is trying to track down his wife, Norma, and her ex-husband turned new lover, Guy Dupree, a co-worker whom Midge recently bailed out of jail after the man was arrested for writing menacing letters to the President. The two lovebirds have fled to Belize (at the time, British Honduras) in Midge’s blue Ford Torino, stealing not only his car but also his credit cards and his prized cassette tape of the Ole Miss professor Dr. Buddy Casey’s lecture on the Siege of Vicksburg.

Any given page of “The Dog of the South” has as much plot as some novellas. Midge finally meets the titular dog more than a thousand miles into his quest; it turns out to be a brokedown school bus turned camper painted all white except for the black-lettered name on the side. A little while later, at a bar in San Miguel de Allende called the Cucaracha, he encounters the bus’s owner, Dr. Reo Symes, who wants to hitch a ride in Midge’s borrowed ’63 Buick Special, because he’s trying to get to Belize to persuade his missionary mother to give him the deed, or at least the development rights, to an island she owns in the Mississippi River. Another thousand miles of road-tripping follows, with Symes passing the time by explaining to Midge how he lost his medical license and all the ways he now makes money without it: a sports-betting scheme that depends on beating other bookies via the time zones; a publishing scheme involving a series of short biographies of Texas county supervisors called “Stouthearted Men”; a jewelry scheme wherein he sells “birthstone rings and vibrating jowl straps.”

But the hardest sell the Louisianan makes isn’t for himself. It is for a self-help guru named John Selmer Dix, who, Symes explains, wrote his best book on the express bus between Dallas and Los Angeles, riding back and forth for an entire year to finish his masterpiece, “With Wings as Eagles.” “Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse,” Symes says by way of endorsement. When Portis returns to the subject of Dix a few chapters later, suddenly there’s a Dix museum, lost Dix manuscripts in a missing tin steamer trunk he carried with him on the bus rides, and Dix impersonators in Fort Worth, Jacksonville, and Odessa. “The Dog of the South” sounds shaggy, and it is; so is almost everything else Portis wrote. “Anything I set out to do degenerates pretty quickly into farce,” he once explained.

That’s true, yet Portis was selling himself short. Although his novels have the fun of farce, part of what’s so charming about them is their relentless plausibility. Many of us have met someone like Reo Symes, usually while he’s holding court on a barstool or a street corner, and we’ve all talked with a character like Ray Midge, often on an airplane when there’s no way to change seats. Even the most outlandish of Portis plots are populated by the kind of Everymen found in almost every Zip Code in this country: barmaids, shopkeeps, shade-tree mechanics, high-and-dry hippies, would-be writers, secretaries, veterans, junkyard scrappers. They are themselves a kind of Library of Americans, and Portis is excellent not only on their day jobs but also on their daydreams and stray thoughts and endogenous knowledge of the world. His characters know things like the last year coins were made of silver, the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, how to jump a car and free a rusty flywheel, the going price of cotton or PVC pipe, what to do about dirt-dobber nests, and the number of Vienna sausages in a can. Portis’s own remarkable store of knowledge began to dwindle only when he developed Alzheimer’s. He died from complications of that disease in 2020, and was buried in the city where he graduated from high school.

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