The Cult of Portis

From left: Maragret Houston, Jonathan Portis
by Clyde Edgerton - October/November 2012

A new compilation celebrates
one of the South’s most underappreciated writers

There may be this small group of people: They’ve read Charles Portis’s fiction and are not Portis devotees. If you belong to such a group, I kind of see you in my mind:

1. You eat out a lot, and
2. You don’t like Bob and Ray, and
3. You profess to enjoy only serious lit-ra-chure.

That would leave two groups: a) the Portis fans, and b) those who’ve yet to read him.

You fans will rush to independent bookstores (those remaining) to buy Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany (Butler Center Books). Inside, you’ll find previously unpublished or hard-to-find Portis writing. The book’s structure encourages jumping around from short stories to newspaper reporting to travel writing to memoir to an interview to an unpublished play.

I recommend that those who are already fans start with the play, Delray’s New Moon (first performed in 1996). Don’t worry too much about the characters’ names, just read the talk—the characters define themselves.

The book’s excellent introduction by its editor, Jay Jennings, together with an insightful tribute by Ed Park, presents a fine, reflective overview of all the published writing of Portis, who lives in Arkansas. Heartfelt praise also comes from Roy Blount, Jr., Ron Rosenbaum, Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower. (A cult thrives.) The overviews, tributes, and selections from Portis’s work make this book just right for any reader.

Much of the effectiveness of Portis’s nonfiction and short stories, Delray’s New Moon, and his novels (Norwood, True Grit—the one many people know about—The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis,
 and Gringos, which are not included in this book) is due to his render
ing and depiction of talk. Human talk in the American South is unique
 (as in any other region), a complicated activity that includes a subtle drift, a gist, and double-clutching beneath the speech. Portis gets it down just right somehow (without overplaying it), and that alone provides reading pleasure. Here’s a bit from Delray’s New Moon:

MR. MINGO. Marguerite is a frisky girl. I wonder if she will remember anything at all about us when she too has been abandoned in some old folks home.
MRS. VETCH. Oh really now, Mr. Mingo!
MR. MINGO. Sitting there despondent with a hump on her back. Chewing her cud day after day, smacking her lips. All lost in some dim and tangled dream.
MRS. VETCH. Why must you dwell on such unpleasant things? How can you be so cruel? Why, couldn’t you just let us think of her as an innocent little girl with a tender heart?
MR. NIBLIS. Because that’s not his nature. That wouldn’t be Mingo. It was thoughts like that that got him put away the first time. The doctors turned him loose way too soon if you ask me.

Consider Mingo as somewhat like his creator. I don’t know Mr. Portis, but I think he might be a little tetched, and that’s one reason his fiction will live for a long time—though it’s not known (except for True Grit) by a lot of people right now. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime, and all that most people know about him is that he cut off his ear—or part of it. Portis’s first novel came out in 1966. What am I trying to say? Something about fame and artistic endurance and apparent public taste.

Let me shoot from a slightly different angle: Banana pudding is delicious, but lumpy, and slow, and heavy-sweet with no tartness—kind of, say, sentimental. Lemon pie is accurate and smooth and lively and quick, bright, with an elegant tone.

Charles Portis is a lemon pie writer.

His satire sings without condescension. The sentimentality and magnolia sensitivity of some Southern writers are, with Portis, gone with the wind. He’s a kind of American Chaucer. He paints characters and gives their talk so accurately that you find the story without feeling its structure.

I’m so happy to review a book that will move people from group b to group a. If you’re in group b, treat yourself well. Move on up.