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."
As a genre, the Western film dates to the earliest days of the medium itself. According to cinema historian Gerald Mast, The Great Train Robbery (1903) was the single most popular film in moviemaking's first two decades. Its final frame of a gunslinger pointing his weapon directly at the viewer and firing shocked audiences in its day. Up until the 1930s, the Western, and primarily silent Westerns, thrived largely as simple, pulpy action tales that set up archetypal characters and landscapes.
Early Western films evoke "vast western vistas and the dignity of the good-bad men who inhabit these spaces," as Mast writes in A Short History of the Movies. The one film that did more than any other to change the genre from mere entertainment to cinematic art was John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Starring John Wayne in his first major role, it was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two.
Ford became the preeminent director of Westerns for the next fifteen years and Wayne the biggest star; they collaborated on classics like Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956), which the American Film Institute has named the best Western of all time. Ford and other directors explored themes of courage, human decency, and written versus individual law. As critic Robert Warshow wrote in 1954, "The Westerner is the last gentleman, and the movies which over and over again tell his story are probably the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength."
In the 1960s, consistent with the counterculture of the time, Westerns became more morally ambiguous, glorifying the outlaws in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and portraying graphic violence in The Wild Bunch, both from 1969.
That same year, Henry Hathaway directed 62-year-old John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in the film version of True Grit, which earned Wayne his only Best Actor Oscar. Compared with other Westerns in the late 1960s, True Grit had a more traditional feel. Nevertheless, it was very popular and ranked among the ten top-grossing films of the year. Fans of the book complained that Kim Darby was too old for the part of Mattie Ross, and that country singer (and Arkansas native) Glen Campbell, playing LaBoeuf, was too green an actor. The film did stick largely to the plot and structure of the book; Portis said that in the couple of days he spent on set he noticed Hathaway often referring to a marked-up copy of the book. Portis also observed that the actors "had trouble speaking the (intentionally) stiff dialogue." Although he did not write the screenplay, he did write the final scene in the film in which Mattie and Rooster talk in her family's graveyard before he mounts his horse, jumps a fence, and rides away.
In 2010, Joel and Ethan Coen directed a second version of True Grit, also extremely popular and award-winning, earning ten Oscar nominations. Starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (who was actually fourteen during filming) as Mattie, it was praised as a more "faithful" remake, mainly in that Steinfeld's Mattie was more true to the forceful adolescent of the book and the actors skillfully mastered dialogue that was often taken verbatim from Portis's scenes.
Whatever the flaws or faithfulness of the two versions, their popular success, forty years apart, affirms the timeless quality of the source material and the enduring appeal of the genre.