If you haven’t read any Charles Portis yet, put down this newspaper, buy one of his five books and devour it — then we’ll talk.
And when that time comes, we’ll probably talk about how much we love him and how we can’t believe his name is not as well known as those of Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Wolfe, who once described Portis as “the original laconic cutup” from their days together at the New York Herald- Tribune.
Even if you haven’t read any of Portis’s work, his name might sound familiar, especially since the Coen brothers recently earned 10 Academy Award nominations for a film adaptation of one of his books, True Grit. (An earlier film adaptation of the same book won John Wayne his only Oscar, for best actor.)
True Grit, while probably his most famous, was Portis’ second book. His first, the picaresque Norwood — written in 1966 and still in print — was successful enough to get him out of the news business.
The book stars Norwood Pratt, an ex-Marine and aspiring country and western singer, who travels from Ralph, Texas, to New York City to recover $70 he loaned to a friend in the service. Along the way, Norwood meets some beautiful women, a chicken with a college education and Edmund B. Ratner, “the world’s smallest perfect fat man.” It’s a strange and humorous story, and Norwood’s blunt narration propels the fast-moving story.
But Norwood’s voice actually belongs, of course, to Portis. His spare writing is the smallest perfect prose. His ability to describe and fashion crystal-clear sentences could only be derived from his years as a reporter.
Take, for example, this snippet of a scene: “The subway was cleaner and more brightly lighted than Norwood had expected, and it moved faster. He jostled his way forward to the front car and looked through the glass with his hands cupped around his face. He was disappointed to find the tunnel so roomy. Only a very fat man could be trapped in it with a train coming. The air smelled of electricity and dirt.”
Read Portis — then keeping on reading him.