By Charles Portis
Oh, Charles Portis... Where have you been all my life?
But first, this...
My wife refuses to go to the movies with me. That's fine because I'm never keen to go. I hate movies. I have a festering disdain for Hollywood nonsense such as Transformers, The Hulk, movies whose titles end in a number or anything starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I tend to ruin movies for people sitting around me. At particular points in the movie I will lean over to my wife and calmly note what I suspect will happen next. Invariably, it does. Or, more frustratingly, I'll lean in and say a variation on the line that is about to be delivered. I can only imagine how infuriating it must be to sit next to me.
I'm not telepathic or anything. My ability to anticipate the plot and dialogue of a movie stems from the complete lack of creativity among today's mainstream filmmakers. It's not that hard to figure out what's going to happen next. It's this formulaic drivel that forces me to behave badly in the darkened theater. My wife says I read too much and called me a snob. I'm comfortable with this if it means I have to go to the theater less.
I hate movies, but not film. (Yes, there is a difference. No, I'm not explaining it. If you don't know the difference, I'm not holding your hand). I've always liked film. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I am a cinephile like Michael Bolton, I do like to sit down to a good Scorsese flick or get all nerdy about an upcoming Coen Brothers release or rant and rave about particular Oscar nominations and omissions.
I love a good many genre of films. I especially like films made in the 1970s. There's something gritty and grainy about that era of film. And the actors and actresses working at the time have proven to be the best generation of acting in the history of film (editor's opinion). Some of my favorites from the decade include Dog Day Afternoon, The Last Picture Show, Annie Hall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Graduate. It was truly a special time for film.
What I enjoy about those films is that the writers of that generation had a knack for dialogue. With the advent of special effects and the blow-em-all-up endings, writers seem to have been reduced to writing snappy one-liners and witty comebacks in lieu of real discourse. It's been a real blow to the film industry that has been going on since the day Star Wars premiered (I love the original Star Wars movies but I cannot deny their role in the infantilization of film and the demise of dialogue). I partially blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but it really has more to do with the Ray Bradbury-esque dumbing-down of the movie-going public, people would rather heard fart jokes than real witty banter. This is a trend that depresses me every other day.
What does this have to do with Charles Portis, you might ask...
OK, I'll get on with it.
Dialogue is what drew me to the films of the 1970s and what draws me to a lot of books. As with film, I am a sucker for novels with good dialogue. It's not the only thing that draws me to a book, but it's a big one. Dialogue can make (Lush Life, Barney's Version) or break (The Da Vinci Code) a novel. In terms of dialogue, the work of Elmore Leonard, Mordecai Richler and Richard Price are especially dear to me. And as of right now, I'd have to add Charles Portis.
As a reader and a fan of old films, it might come as a surprise that I've never read True Grit. True be told, I, like so many, had no idea that it was a novel before it became a John Wayne classic. I only recently discovered that the story was not only a best-selling novel but also considered a prime example of classic modern American literature (if that makes sense).
For those who are unaware (aka too young to know), True Grit is the post-Civil War era story of Mattie Ross's resolute drive to exact revenge for the murder of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney. She employs the services of the shifty, oft-drunk federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn to hunt Chaney down in the wild territory known at the time as the Choctaw Nation (modern day Oklahoma). Another lawman, a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf needles himself into the manhunt as well. The motley threesome set off on a wild search for Chaney and his band of outlaws. It is a classic western.
I've seen the recent Coen Brothers remake of the film starring Jeff Bridges, but I didn't think that counted in comparison to the original film (loved it though). As it turns out, the Coen Brothers movie is decidedly faithful to the novel. But that's alright. I was glad to break my never reading a book after seeing the movie rule for this one. Had I adhered to my usual rule, I'd have missed out on some of the best dialogue ever written.
Charles Portis has a knack for characterization via dialogue. Mattie Ross as narrator in the novel is light on characterization, putting emphasis on what, exactly happened. But it is through the dialogue that each character develops, a skill that only the best writers are capable of doing. The precocious, right-minded protestantism of Mattie Ross. Rooster Cogburn's hard drinking cynicism and LeBeouf's morality all manifest themselves through Portis's dialogue.
And here's the best part: If you haven't read this novel and you like dialogue as much as I do, you'll be interested to know that almost the entire novel is written in dialogue. The book is told from the perspective of Mattie Ross who, like I mentioned above, isn't long on characterization as a narrator, but excellent at recalling events and conversations. And that is exactly how she recounts the story, through short bursts of narration followed by extensive amounts of dialogue.
I'm happy and sad that I finished this book. I'm happy that I broke my rule about reading the novels after seeing the film. I would have missed out on a true classic. But I'm sad that it took me this long to find and read this book. It felt like the sort of book that might have changed my life as a teenager. I did get a distinct feeling that I missed out on something here if only I had read it a few decades ago.
Oh well, better late than never.
If you have read this far and would rather read something interesting for a change, go check out Bibliomania. Erin reads a lot of books about the brain, which is fascinating to read, even if only in review form.