Tuesday, May 26, 2009

True Grit

The novels of Charles Portis are alike in their southern voice and setting, their humorous dialogue and eccentric characters.

Where True Grit differs from the others is that it takes place in the past -- during the 1870s after the American Civil War.

It's an anti-western.

Mattie Ross is a 14-year-old girl whose father has been shot down by a hired hand named Tom Chaney.

She sets out after him with a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (pronounced "LaBeef"), and a one-eyed federal marshall named Rooster Cogburn, who eats corn dodgers and drinks "double-rectified busthead."

On one level the book reads like a YA novel, particularly at its climax, which involves a cave inhabited by bats, snakes and a skeleton.

But it is rescued from this one misstep by great dialogue, Mattie's pungent observations, and an ending that is far from treacly.

A sample:

I sat at one corner of the table between her and a tall, long-backed man with a doorknob head and a mouthful of prominent teeth. He and Mrs. Floyd did most of the talking. He traveled about selling pocket calculators. He was the only man there wearing a suit of clothes and a necktie. He told some interesting stories about his experiences but the others paid little attention to him, being occupied with their food like hogs rooting in a bucket.

"Watch out for those chicken and dumplings," he told me.

Some of the men stopped eating.

"They will hurt your eyes," he said.

A dirty man across the table in a smelly deerskin coat said, "How is that?"

With a mischievous twinkle the drummer replied. "They will hurt your eyes looking for the chicken." I thought it a clever joke but the dirty man said angrily, "You squirrelheaded son of a bitch," and went back to eating.

The book contains laudatory quotes from Esquire, The New York Times, The Saturday Review and from Jonathem Lethem, Roald Dahl, and Walker Percy (the man who saved A Confederacy of Dunces from oblivion).