22 March 2011


I was quite sure I'd already read Charles Portis's True Grit when I picked it up last weekend, but it was delightfully unfamiliar.  The John Wayne my eleven-year-old self remembers is not the best character in the book; that distinction goes to Portis's Mattie Ross, a true original, a fourteen-year-old girl who has always felt more effective and competent than anyone around her.  

She comes unaccompanied to Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the western edge of the civilized world, determined to avenge her too-trusting father's murder.  Although she lugs around her father's old dragoon pistol, her real arms are just her grit and her tongue.  In a pinch she wields the magical name of "lawyer J. Noble Daggett of Dardanelle, Arkansas," of whom the dandy Texas Ranger LeBoeuf says "she draws him like a gun" (in a great line from the original movie not found in this book full of great lines).  To her falcon's eye, all men are likely failures, and she despises their ineffectuality and their vices.  Like the barmaid in James Stephens's bracing flyte "A Glass of Beer," Mattie has "the toughest jaw you will see/ On virtue's path, and a voice that would rasp the dead."  Withal, she's a wonderfully engaging character, loaded with mettle and verve, a Force of Nature multiplied by that merciless Judgment which teenagers muster so well (luckily for the rest of us, they drop it when they master Proportion).  

Over the course of the book, she discovers that virtue is sometimes concealed by foible and a pretty mustache, and that a man's weaknesses don't always have to mean he's weak, but first Portis gives her fierce Presbyterian self-righteousness full comic play.  In an early scene, she's hiring the dissipated Marshal Rooster Cogburn to guide her into the Oklahoma Territory after her father's killer.  They dicker over his fee.  She says,
     "You are trying to take advantage of me."
     "I am giving you my children's rate," he said.  "It will not be an easy job of work, smoking Ned out.  He will be holed up down there in the hills in the Choctaw Nation.  There will be expenses."
     "I hope you don't think I am going to keep you in whiskey."
     "I don't have to buy that, I confiscate it.  You might try a little touch of it for your cold."
     "No, thank you."
     "This is the real article.  It is double-rectified bust-head from Madison County, aged in the keg.  A little spoonful would do you a power of good."
     "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains."

Blinkered and all, it's not a bad line for a fourteen-year-old.  Or for Charles Portis either.

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