Friday, April 8, 2011

True Grit, by Charles Portis

I don't particularly like westerns, and yet I love many westerns. Like romantic comedies, the genre is so laden with cliches that even the revisionist entries in the genre have their own set of cliches. Regardless, I count many westerns among my favorite movies, and believe that the best westerns (like the best romantic comedies and caper films) are among the most powerful stories I've seen told.

I saw the Coen brothers' film adaptation before reading the book, so, as I started the book, I worried that knowing the plot would spoil the reading experience for me. Fortunately, within pages, one realizes that the reason to read True Grit isn't the story - though it is a good one - or even the characters, though they are memorable. The reason to read True Grit is Mattie Ross's narration - fearless, naive, no-nonsense, equally inspired by the Old Testament and Victorian manners, darkly humorous in her deadpan insightfulness. She has the moxy to tell a Texas Ranger fifteen years her senior ""Run home yourself. Nobody asked you to come up here wearing your big spurs," and persuasive enough that one bounty hunter warns another that "she has got you buffaloed with her saucy ways." And yet, she is, understandably, impressionable enough to be shocked by the violent realities of bounty hunting. She's a wonderful character, probably the best-developed females (oh, how I wanted to use the word 'women' there, despite her being only 13 years of age) in westerns. She becomes a woman before our eyes - not in terms of age, and not in terms of sexual maturity, but just because, by the end of the novel, she has seen more of the world than most adults would ever care to see.

At the start of the novel, Mattie arrives in the frontier town Fort Smith, Arkansas, hours away from her small hometown in the country, to retrieve the body of her father, a horse trader who had been shot by Tom Chaney, one of his cowboys, while in Fort Smith on business. Instead of going straight home from the undertaker's, Mattie goes instead to a merchant to sell back to him the horses her father had bought shortly before his death. Their negotiation - perfectly played in the movie - is a masterpiece of comedy and frontier dialect. From there, she goes straight to the sheriff's office, where she asks the sheriff what she can do to ensure that Tom Cheney is brought to justice. The sheriff recommends hiring a United States Marshall to track Chaney through Indian territory, and accidentally recommends Rooster Cogburn, a drunken ex-confederate bandit who appeals to Mattie because he is the meanest marshall of them all - "a man of true grit." Later, they are joined on their quest by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is pursuing Chaney for his own purposes - he wants to return him to Texas so that he may face charges of shooting a state senator (and the state senator's dog, though the killing of the dog is "arguably malum prohibitum").

Mattie earns her spurs by keeping up with the two veteran bounty hunters as they track Chaney and his cohorts into Indian country. The novel builds to a suspenseful climax, followed by a denoument in which Mattie has some of her best lines. But don't read True Grit for the plot. Read it for its characters, for Mattie Ross' narration, and for Portis' tone, that makes you feel the danger and grit of the frontier west without engaging in any Cormac McCarthyish fake cowboy dramatics, and it ranks among the best western novels I've read.

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