Thursday, October 03, 2013

Writer's Book Report: TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis

Anyone who has seen either the 1969 John Wayne or the 2010 Coen Brothers' movie adaptation knows the essentials of TRUE GRIT's plot. 14 year-old Mattie Ross's father visits Fort Smith Arkansas for some horse trading, and is shot there by Tom Chaney, one of his hired men. Mattie herself goes to Fort Smith to collect the body and settle her father's accounts. For Mattie, this involves hiring Rooster Cogburn, a drunken, trigger-happy US Marshall as a bounty hunter. She wants him to cross over into Indian Territory, track Chaney down and bring him to justice. And to Cogburn's surprise and irritation, headstrong Mattie follows him into Indian Territory "to see the deed done" herself.

Here are the first thirteen or so lines of the novel:

PEOPLE DO not give it credence that a fourteen year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces he carried in his trouser band.

Here is what happened. We had clear title to 480 acres of good bottom land on the south bank of the Arkansas river not far from Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas. Tom Chaney was a tenant but working for hire, not shares. He turned up one day hungry and riding a gray horse that had a filthy blanket on its back and a rope halter instead of a bridle.

Right away we see one of the defining strengths of this book: its observant, eccentric, forceful narrator. Many have noted that the book is narrated by a fourteen year-old girl, but I believe this is incorrect. The narrator is over forty years old and referring back to events in her youth. She has a lot in common with her younger self though.

Portis gets right to work on establishing the narrator's voice. Notice "do not" and "did not". One of the remarkable things about this book is the near total lack of contractions. This is one of Mattie's quirks, and it even bleeds over into her recollection of dialog -- a subtle touch I thought. Mattie is judgmental. Right in the first sentence she is telling us her low opinion of the public's ability to see the truth.

Mattie's also a sharp observer, but in a particular sort of way. She tells a story like she's testifying in a civil trial, obstinately slipping her opinions into the hard narrative facts. Yet Mattie doesn't tell us how she felt about her father being murdered -- her actions will make that clear enough. She does tell us her father was "robbed" and goes on to inventory the items stolen: his life, his horse, $150 "cash money" and two California gold pieces. This after he had been kind to Chaney, given him a home which, admittedly, was an old cotton house but "had a good roof". Note also the inflated way she lists the items in the inventory, using conjunctions rather than commas.

This is quite a skillful approach to characterization. Portis doesn't milk the situation for bathos; we're already inclined to sympathize with a 14 year-old girl whose father has been murdered. Instead, he takes the cover of our sympathy to paint a girl who is not entirely likable. Mattie is a bloodthirsty, bible-thumping pill -- a pious girl, yes, but one whose Christianity makes up for what it lacks in forgiveness and cheek-turning with a double-helping of retribution and sharp dealing.

One of the best ways to paint a character is to present him early on with a choice. Portis does this by having the sheriff offer Mattie a choice of who the "best" US Marshall would be. William Waters is the best tracker, a half-Comanche with an uncanny ability to "cut for sign". Rooster Cogburn is the meanest, a pitiless, fearless man who drinks too much. But the best in the sheriff's opinion is L.T. Quinn, a fair-minded man who never plants evidence, and is a lay preacher to boot. "Where can I find this Rooster?" is Mattie's deadpan response.

This bloody-mindedness is the secret of her appeal. She knows what she wants and how she intends to get it. Mattie steps into the story and takes charge, and from the moment she gets on the train to Fort Smith she is a force to be reckoned with. I wish more authors would learn that lesson. Too many manuscripts try to gain our sympathy for the protagonist by having bad things happen to him in the first chapter. Then they follow with the obvious, logical reaction: the protagonist feels bad, sometimes for pages on end. I don't like to overgeneralize, so if you can make that work, more power to you, but don't ignore the other possibility, of having the protagonist take forceful action. The combination of misfortune and competent reaction more readily produces sympathy than misfortune with passive suffering.

One more thing to take note of here is subtle dialect that slips into Mattie's highly "correct" narration. Her father is "shot down" and robbed of "cash money". Later we'll see lots of use of regional dialect both in dialog's grammar (excepting contractions) and in words (skim milk is "bluejohn").

Another interesting thing Portis does is with backstory. There's almost no backstory in the opening -- unless you count Mattie's recounting of her father's death, which she did not witness and therefore tells us about rather than shows. Portis presents the characters to us and puts them to work fully made. Then, when Rooster and Mattie are deep in Indian territory, we get a surprising detour into Rooster's backstory.

Rooster's background is unsavory. During the Civil War he was one of Quantrill's Raiders , a vigilante group which perpetrated atrocities against Union-sympathizing civilians. After the war he robbed a US army payroll. Later he robs a high interest bank in Nevada, which ironically leads to him being hired as a US Marshall. Rooster sees distinctions in his behavior which justify it. The high interest bank is practically a criminal itself -- it should be a criminal, therefore robbing it isn't robbing an honest citizen. The army payroll? Well, that's Yankee money.

One thing that must be said is that it's a lot easier to get through backstory introduced late. We're already committed to the story, and presumably interested in where the characters came from. But still, it slows down the story, and we don't need it to follow the action, so why put it in? I think this is a case of Portis spending attention span to achieve something else. Tom Chaney is a depraved man who kills for no good reason. Ned Pepper, the outlaw Chaney throws in with, kills when it is to his advantage. Rooster Cogburn kills when it is to his advantage and he doesn't consider the victim respectable. Mattie is out to kill for revenge, although she calls it "justice".

Portis places each of these characters along a continuum, and each is marked by violence -- literally so. Chaney has a powder burn on his face. Ned has a mutilated lip from being shot in the face. Rooster has a dead eye. Mattie will, by and by, receive her own mark of violence. After he climactic confrontation, she is attacked by a snake (note the allusion in a Bible reference-laced novel) in a pit (entrance to the underworld?). It's sly and deft bit of symbolism that you're free to ignore if you want to take the story as a simple adventure. It manages this is a relatively short manuscript length, I estimate about 70K words.

I think what makes this story such a favorite of writers is how it works on more than one level; as a straightforward adventure, as a ironic, even cynical satire, and as a mythic story of retribution and loss of innocence (which the hard-headed young Mattie shows flashes of). That's how two movies can be made from such a short book that are so different from each other, yet both are unusually true to the book.  The '69 preserves more of the book's scenes but gives the story a more upbeat ending.  The Coen brothers version adds some macabre scenes, streamlines others, but restores Portis' ironic and bittersweet ending.


TITLE:  True Grit
AUTHOR: Charles Portis
EDITION REVIEWED: Kindle Ebook, ISBN:1408814005, Aug 28, 2007 Overlook Press