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True Grit, the Short Novel

I know i'm a little late to this party, but I've just started digging into the book True Grit, on which the two movies ... 

True Grit Poster Movie German 11x17 Jeremy Slate Dennis Hopper Alfred Ryder Strother Martin

True Grit Poster Print, 11x17

... are based.

I couldn't sleep last night, so I grabbed the duvet, propped myself up on the couch, and took up the nice hardback Book of the Month Club edition of True Grit my friend Mark loaned me. I was halfway through before I got sleepy.

Charles Portis can write. How he managed to inhabit the blood and brain of a 14-year old girl, Mattie Ross, our hero in True Grit, was beyond me ... I mean, beyond her avoidance of contractions, which I believe made its way into the Mad Magazine parody.  

But Ingrid Norton, in Open Letters Monthly, figured it out:

Mattie’s frontier cadences mix vivid metaphors (Mrs. Floyd “could no more keep her mouth closed than can a yellow catfish”) with a Biblical formality. Charles Portis, an Arkansan who would go on to write three more novels, knew what he was talking about. Cutting his teeth as a cub reporter at Northwest Arkansas Times, one of his responsibilities was to go through the dispatches of “lady stringers” in the Ozarks and redact religious and folksy ornamentation. The linguistic zeal of True Grit arises partly from the revenge that Portis takes on the drab neutrality of newsman’s English. Attending the trial of a robber she explains:

I have a newspaper record of a part of that Wharton trial and it is not an official transcript but it is faithful enough. I have used it and my memories to write a good historical article that I titled, "You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge."

But the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one.

Mattie’s voice makes such digressions hilarious and speeds forward the plot. When Mattie approaches Rooster Cogburn to get his help hunting down Chaney, she says, “They tell me you are a man with true grit.” Alcoholic, roguish, and worldly wise, in many ways Rooster stands opposite to Mattie’s unyielding insistence on law and order. But as violent circumstances test the pair, an uncomplaining stoicism turns out to be the quality that sustains them both. At the core, Mattie and Rooster are bold and intensely loyal. Their actions are never romanticized. Staking out dugouts on winter nights is cold and tiring business. Guns misfire and horses startle. Though resilient and practical to the final page, Mattie by no means emerges unscathed. The novel suggests that in difficult times, her and Rooster’s hard-bitten virtues are the only traits of consequence.

Mattie's intelligence, pride, and sense of personal context reminds me of my (Lexington) Kentucky cousins, the Lucases and Moloneys*. They know their town, they know themselves and their family, and they know where and how they fit, all of which instills a confidence in them I don't see too often. If you like personality, you love them; if you're a shrinking violet, you'd best stay home.

The aforementioned Mad parody of True Grit was all I knew of the first movie until a few weeks ago, when I watched it on TCM. A week or so later, I saw the Coen Brothers' version. I prefer the former, even though Matt Damon is a much better LaBoeuf than Glen Campbell. For one, you can understand what John Wayne is saying; I'm not sure why the Coens let Jeff Bridges be so incoherent, especially given the beauty of Portis's prose. "Fill your nstumfle, you stomriskaturb!" And while I appreciate the additional material from the novel woven into the new version -- notably the hanging and the ending -- it didn't add to my understanding of Mattie.

In any case, the book is wonderful, and you can buy a copy on Amazon using this link and have the proceeds benefit KPCC.  While you're at it, order up another fine book about the changing of the American West -- Jack "Shane" Schaefer's Monte Walsh. Then you'll have enough reading for a week's worth of sleepless nights.


*Check out this article by my late cousin, Richard Moloney, about the groundbreaking idea of testifying in court via picturephone -- circa 1969!