Review – True Grit

People do not give it credence that a book of great literary merit could slip out of print, or that a strong narrative voice could be sidelined because she had the unfortunate luck (in the eyes of modern realist snoots) to hail from Yell County, Arkansas, in the late 19th century.

Yet, having read such a book narrated by such a voice, I find myself in agreement with Roald Dahl’s assessment of it (as quoted by Donna Tartt, in her afterword to the book she remembers studying alongside Whitman, Poe, and Hawthorne in honors English during the 1970s before it slipped into a dark pit of obscurity):

I was going to say it was the best novel to come my way since … Then I stopped. Since what?

“Since what” indeed. And I, my friends, have read a lot of damn books.

Charles Portis’ classic True Grit, about how a girl named Mattie Ross avenges the death of her father, is among the most remarkable novels I have ever read, and it is with a great sense of betrayal that I think back on how its life in American literature was likely cut short — echoing the murder of Frank Ross — by a man who felt cheated and a community that could not be bothered to seek the justice the book deserves.

Here is what happened.

As a kid, I disliked Westerns.  I had many occasions to watch the 1969 film adaptation of True Grit on television (my step-dad was a John Wayne fan) but I could never watch more than a few minutes of the flick before heading off to something more engaging.

The buzz surrounding the 2010 Coen brothers adaptation, however, lassoed my interest.  Could there really be an obscure classic of American fiction lurking under that swaggery John Wayne film that I found so scoff-worthy as a teenager?

Well, in the intervening epoch since those youthful years I spent avoiding the first True Grit film, I had come to appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of the Western, largely thanks to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which I still feel plays like a novel adaptation.

Regulars to Leith Literary will also note that I am a sucker for witty dialogue, and  dialogue plays a huge role in my own writing.  Considering this, the trailer for the 2010 True Grit film had me at “Shot?  Or killed?”

I made plans to see it the very moment it opened for public viewing, the midnight showing in fact.

I was not disappointed.  Not only did the dialogue surpass anything I had ever seen from the Coen brothers in both cleverness and pace, but the characters were immense, particularly (and ironically) little Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who accompanies two officers into Indian Territory searching for the man who murdered her father.

The “odd couple” dynamic between the rugged Deputy Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn and the hubristic, uptight Texas Ranger LaBoeuf enriches the sublimated love triangle these two men form with 14-year-old Mattie in ways that I suspect overshot the awareness of most viewers.

To me however, as a writer who obsesses on character interaction, it _ was _ #@%&ing _ brilliant.

Although I regret the comparison after having read the novel (in which the same love-triangle+buddy-tale dynamic is present, but handled differently) as I left the theater I thought: “That was how Bandits should have been done.”

I became determined to read the original novel.

Trying to do a good turn.

I was in the middle of another book at the time, however, and in this interim period I decided to take a look at the 1969 John Wayne adaptation on Netflix.

Its whole was pretty much as I remembered its parts. Having now read the novel, I must agree with critics who complain that it comes off as a farewell vehicle for John Wayne, a sentimental gift to an aging actor whom many felt Hollywood had not properly celebrated during his long and profitable career.

I felt that the film accommodates JohnWayne in his role as Rooster Cogburn, and John Wayne played the Deputy Marshal as he played all of his characters: as John Wayne. An older, fatter, more stumbly-than-swaggery John Wayne, but John Wayne nonetheless.

This is not necessarily a criticism of the man (not everyone can be a character actor) but it is criticism of the inexcusable exploitation of a fine piece of literature for something as tawdry as a going-away party.

And, the accuracy of my harsh interpretation is hammered home by the fact that John Wayne’s True Grit was followed by a rightly panned 1975 sequel that completely lacked the narrator of the novel.  The Mattie role was replaced by another vehicle for an aging actor, Katherine Hepburn this time. Completely drained of Portis, Wayne flopped.

Pile on top of this another poorly received 1978 television sequel lacking both Portis material and Wayne glamor, and it’s no wonder that the formidable novel became so tarnished that it plummeted from honors English to out-of-print.

I do not know this line.

Some might protest that the Coen brothers also took liberties with the novel, altering the plot and adding scenes that were not in Portis’s text … like the one I parody in the title of this section.

Also took liberties” is not how I would describe it, however — particularly not in comparison with the earlier adaptation. Where the Coen brothers stray from Portis, rather than trying to accommodate the actors, they were extrapolating on the author’s own dry humor and the dynamics he had explored in the novel between the characters.

For example, I was sorely disappointed and not a little surprised to find the scene with the high-hung man missing from the novel.*

I also found the exchange between the three main characters on the difference between malum prohibitum and malum in se wholly fitting the relationship Portis established between them; Rooster’s comment about LaBoeuf “spilling the banks of English” would not have been out of place in the mutual chaffing that characterizes their interaction in the novel.

The  additions to Portis in the 2010 film were not gifts to Damon and Bridges the way the 1969 version was to Wayne.  The Coen additions play out more like well-done fan fiction. And that, I believe, is legitimate film adaptation.

Moreover, despite the gripes of Portis fanatics**, most of the structural changes in the 2010 film are simply part of “adapting” (look the word up) a story from the page to the screen. Film is a different medium from text.

Viewers process story differently from the way readers do, and master directors like the Coen brothers understand this.  For example, a film intended to be viewed at one sitting cannot bear the number of characters a full-length novel can.  You have to cut and conflate, and even transform character conflicts into character absences, to make the story translate.

They have been known to wake up.

Which brings us to the book.  Like Greaser Bob in Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang, the novel deserves the insistence that it is “The Original,” no matter how good I believe the Coen brothers film is.

And, it is quite good.  My favorite of theirs by far.  But, getting back to the novel, which I read after having viewed both of its film adaptations.

I have to confess — because, if I don’t, someone will point it out to me — that there is a powerful resemblance between the relationship that the headstrong girl Mattie Ross has with the gruff Marshall Cogburn and the relationship that the headstrong girl Diana Ashcraft has with the gruff (but unnamed) Security Corps officer who narrates my Lemaigne novels.***

In True Grit, when Mattie first reveals to Rooster that she intends to go with him into Indian Territory hunting the man who killed her father, we get this exchange:

“First I will have an understanding. Can we leave for the Territory this afternoon?”

He sat up in the bed. “Wait,” he said, “Hold up. You are not going.”

“That is part of it,” said I.

“It cannot be done.”

Well, as we find out later in the story, it certainly can be done and Mattie makes sure that it is done against the objections of both Rooster and LaBoeuf.

Now compare this bit of dialogue from “The Dun Cat of Mill Bridge,” which I wrote long before I had seen or read True Grit.  The narrator has been explaining to Diana the ambush he is setting for the eponymous Dun Cat, which has been killing people in the countryside around Lemaigne.

“I’ll hide with you,” Diana said.

“No, you’ll stay inside the mill house, or go back to Lemaigne.”

“To make sure you don’t drift off,” she finished her thought as if I had not interjected contrary instructions.

“Whatever. Two sets of eyes, I guess.”

He gives in faster than Rooster, but then again this is only a short story.

So, perhaps I am biased in favor of Portis, at least in the case of True Grit, because we share a love of dry humor, unintentionally comical narrators telling adventure stories, and unexpectedly aligned tensions between two strong, but differently gendered characters.

Even so, there are objective reasons to admire Portis, especially if you are a writer or an aware and educated reader.  The literary merit of the novel True Grit can best be seen in how artfully Portis’s narrator comes off as clumsy and unliterary.

As any writer who has ever attempted the unreliable narrator understands, getting across what the reader needs to know is no Sunday brunch when the character telling the story has his or her own ideas about what’s important.  Yet, in the voice of Mattie Ross, Portis carries the unreliable narrator concept beyond the merely convincing into a layer of meta-literary excellence that is difficult even to express.

Never mind how Mattie’s voice faithfully conveys the sound of post-Civil War Arkansas.  Portis has been adequately praised by others on his accurate representation of Southern idiom. I want to focus on the universally applicable virtues of Portis’s use of the first-person narrator.

Mattie is so casual about her unliterary digressions from the narrative — whether to lecture the reader on scriptural interpretation or simply to interject pointless anecdotal information during a moment of high tension — that if the book were a memoir and carried her name on the cover rather than Charles Portis, it might well be unreadable despite the intriguing narrative, and certainly unpublishable.

As a novel, however, the very same text instead becomes a rich character study spread on top of an engaging adventure story; the didactic tangents indulged by Mattie — which at face would be aggravating book-closers — are instead transformed into charming quirks … or, even more craftily, humor at Mattie’s expense.

The unreadable becomes un-put-down-able.  And, unlike many attempts in this vein, Mattie’s voice seems genuine throughout.  Despite that it would never work as a memoir, it is believable as one.  The author’s jokes about his narrator never interrupt or corrupt the authenticity of her own voice.

Now that is genius.  Portis makes the literary look seamlessly unliterary, and therefore literary again.  It reminds me of the Zen saying:

Before we study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  While we are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers.  When our study of Zen is complete, mountains are once again mountains and rivers are once again rivers.

In True Grit, following Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf through the mountains and rivers of Indian Territory, we pass through the literary into the unliterary and back to the literary again.  Mattie’s political prejudices, religious biases, and absence of healthy self-doubt are exposed as hollow and empty, poked at for humorous effect, yet somehow unjudged and intact at the end.

She is obnoxious, and “human” in all of the negative ways that it is possible to be human.  And, yet, we love her.

Speaking through Mattie (and the conventions of her very accurately portrayed Southern sentiments) Portis does not smirk at the human failings he unveils through her.  Mattie lectures, but (unlike so many “literary” writers) Portis does not.

Like a parabolic prophet, Portis simply offers us a what-if that is a deeper, distilled reflection of the as-is.  And, is this not the essence of true art?

Having read the novel, and having been staggered at the power of its voice, I am tempted to repeat my thought upon leaving the Coen brothers’ film, substituting instead a dozen novels that have attempted the sort of narrative layering mastered by Portis.

This is how Charlie should have been done in Flowers for Algernon!

Dare I say it? This is how Ishmael should have been done in Moby-Dick!

Like Roald Dahl, I have a hard time coming up with a “Since what?” in comparing True Grit with novels I have read previously. It absolutely belongs on the shelf beside Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Morrison.  It belongs in honors English.

Like rattlesnakes in winter, one can hope that The Original True Grit can be awakened from its undeserved obscurity by interest in this new film adaptation, which seems on its way to multiple award nominations.  I certainly hope that my readers pick up True Grit and acquaint themselves with this arresting (no pun intended) classic of American literature.


* I could have done without the man in the bearskin with his hyper-articulated “expectorant.”

** Including one critic who claims to have read the novel several times and to know every scene and yet misspelled LaBoeuf despite that the book makes a specific point about how the spelling and pronunciation seem to diverge.  At the very least, pick the book up again and reread it before using it to smack the film.

*** Beyond the relationship, the two sets of characters are almost antitheses of each other.  My characters are much closer in age than Mattie and Rooster, Diana being 16 when she meets the Observer in his mid-20s.  In True Grit, the girl is the narrator; in the Lemaigne novels, the man is.

While both girls are knowledgeable about commerce and the law, Mattie is pious and authoritarian, while Diana is quite liberal. Mattie has a tendency to think poorly of people, while Diana is much more compassionate and forgiving — except toward Lea Ashcraft, about which I will say no more!

Both Cogburn and the Observer are grumpy, formidable in a fight, and sarcastic, but Rooster is a drunk while the Observer is sober, if not a teetotaler, avoiding even tobacco and intoxicating thoughts. Rooster Cogburn is almost functionally illiterate but, while the Observer might have a cynical take on Daniels on Negotiable Instruments, he would certainly be able to read and understand it.

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