Those who know Charles Portis only as the author of True Grit may have wrongly assumed that he is a writer of Westerns in the manner of Louis L'Amour. In fact, as wonderful and popular as True Grit is, many critics and fans feel that his literary reputation ultimately will rest on his other four novels, which are more directly comic and genre-defying.
His first novel, Norwood (1966), follows Norwood Pratt, a Korean War vet, auto mechanic, and aspiring country singer from Ralph, Texas, on an odyssey to New York City and back to recover a $70 debt from a Marine buddy. Clocking in at less than two hundred pages, the book offers a brisk picaresque through oddball America, including an encounter with the "world's smallest perfect fat man," the liberation of a "College Educated Chicken" named Joann the Wonder Hen from a penny arcade, and a sort-of love story. The book establishes Portis's deadpan comic voice and laugh-out-loud observational acuity, as when Norwood notices a sign on a closed furniture store instructing patrons "to call R. T. Baker in case of emergency" and imagines such a call: "Hello, Baker? I hate to bother you at home but I need a chair right now."
The success of True Grit and the pigeonholing of Portis as a writer in the Western genre no doubt accounted for the initially tepid response to his next novel, The Dog of the South (1979), a shaggier picaresque. In it, a newspaper copy editor, Ray Midge, sets out from his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Mexico in pursuit of his wife, his colleague she has run off with, and his prized Ford Torino. Along the twisting way to British Honduras, Midge picks up Dr. Reo Symes, a fluid talker and ne'er-do-well schemer who, as Midge observes, once "sold wide shoes by mail, shoes that must have been almost round, at widths up to EEEEEE." Midge's first-person narration propels the book to its comic heights, and it is most often cited by fans as Portis's funniest. It sold poorly until five years after publication, when two New York City bookstore workers bought all existing hardcover copies and filled their store window display with them, reviving interest.
Within a year of that resurrection, Portis had another novel ready, Masters of Atlantis (1985), the tale of a second-rate fraternal society, the Gnomons, founded by Lamar Jimmerson, who, while serving in World War I, comes upon a document that he believes holds the key to the lost city of Atlantis and its alchemical secrets. The book traces the rise and fall of the society, as various cranks engage in infighting and power plays. Both Conan O'Brien and Garrison Keillor have listed it among their favorite funny novels, and Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary, recently went one step further in a Tweet: "Blown away: this is truly a great American novel."
Portis's most recent novel, Gringos, was published in 1991. Less baldly comic and altogether darker, it may be his most fully realized work of fiction in the depth of its characters, the turning of its plot, and the complexity of its moral world. Nevertheless, his trademark clarity of language and fineness of observation are everywhere. For example, the laconic narrator Jimmy Burns, an expatriate American in the Yucatan, faces a cult-like group's menacing leader, whose Aryan Brotherhood tattoo "was a rough, homemade job done with a pin and spit and burnt match-heads."
While fans wait for another novel, they can be happy with a new compilation of Portis's previously uncollected work, Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany (2012). In addition to short stories and newspaper and magazine journalism, the book includes a previously unpublished, once-produced play, Delray's New Moon (1996), which novelist Glen David Gold has called Portis's "sixth major work."
Mark Twain's Roughing It (1872)
Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie (1935)
A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky (1947)
Hal Borland's When the Legends Die (1963)
Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (1970)
Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902)
Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
Louis L'Amour's Bendigo Shafter (1979)
Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (1985)
Denis Johnson's Train Dreams (2011)
Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers (2012)