There are many definitions of what makes a great work of literature, but for my money a great book must do one thing above all else: it must create a world of its own, with its own unique atmosphere and moral universe. It must invent that world and transport you into it, and make you believe in it, from first sentence to last. Paradoxically you will inhabit it intimately as an autonomous world existing independently of you, the reader. The plot and the setting, the characters and their language – all exist elsewhere, and you merely overhear, oversee, even though you are drawn into the very heart and essence of the creation. This is the godlike miracle of great writing. Homer did it, Shakespeare did it, the Brontës and Dickens did it. The new world the author creates is peculiar and true to that particular poem, play or novel, and true to no other.
The last sentence of True Grit, spoken by its narrator and heroine, Mattie Ross, declares that ‘this ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s [her father’s] blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground’. That phrase ‘true account’ is vital to the fiction. Mattie’s story has all the authority of the truth-teller who has successfully created that other world, the one in which, like the Wedding Guest, you cannot choose but believe, even though you know it’s an illusion, that Mattie does not exist, that the real voice belongs to Charles Portis, the enigmatic recluse who wrote the novel in 1968.
Look at Mattie’s concluding sentence again. The casual geographical precision and the simple, telling detail about the weather make it sound almost banal – ironically so after you have just read her amazing account of her adventures, while on another level the biblical cadences will make you prick up your ears.
Nor does the opening sentence of the novel offer much more promise of what is to come by way of these incredible and enthralling adventures: ‘People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the winter time to avenge her father’s blood – but I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money, plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.’
What you are aware of here is not so much the potential excitement that lies ahead as the relentless factualism of Mattie Ross’s mind and manners, and of her account: the time, the place, the details of the crime, all listed. The money and the horse are of course trivial, you would say, in comparison with the father’s life, of which Chaney robbed her. But Mattie wouldn’t say so. She is pedantic in her pursuit of justice. The criminal will answer for every last transgression. The remarkable thing is that the ruthless recorder of these offences is not the eternal angel behind the Book of Judgement but a self-tutored girl, an innocent virgin in whom puberty has barely started.
And there is the element of judgement in her voice. Tom Chaney is not only a thief and a killer, he is also a coward, and she will make him pay, both for his felony and for his moral depravity. As avenger and upholder of moral law, there is a larger-than-life scripturalism about Mattie which, like her insistent pedantry and attention to detail, is going to be one of the arresting features of the novel.
But while revealing her character and something of her world, the opening gives little indication of the surprises that litter the narrative. You are going to be taken to places with names like Dardanelle, the Poteau river, the Winding Stair mountains, Wagoner’s Switch, Chickamauga and many a tight and terrifying spot in the Choctaw Nation – the Indian Territory of what is present-day Oklahoma.
In this alien but authentic world you will meet good guys with names like LaBoeuf (pronounced La-Beef ) and Rooster Cogburn and Yarnell Poindexter, and encounter human trash (Mattie’s unforgiving expression) such as Odus Wharton, Lucky Ned Pepper and the original Greaser Bob. They will be carrying weapons like the Henry rifle, the Sharp carbine and the Colt dragoon. And by the time you emerge from their world you will know what is meant by a writ of replevin, a slicker, a kingbolt, a middlebuster, and you’ll be acquainted with corn dodgers and clabber, hot tamales and sofky and grits, all washed down with double-rectified busthead. The language and detail embed the book firmly and unforgettably in the world it has set out to create.
Equally unforgettable and brilliantly convincing is the narrator’s voice, that of little Mattie Ross. But this voice, unique in fiction, is in fact a blend of two voices: that of the 14-year-old girl who sets out on the adventure of her life in the winter of 1873, and that of the crusty old spinster, writing in 1928 (supposedly) and revisiting the events of that memorable chapter in her life when she experienced some ‘lively times’. The understatement is typical.
There is no falsification of tone when an old woman penning her memoir on the eve of the Great Depression puts words into the mouth of the girl she once was, a girl born in 1859. And this is because the old Miss Ross (unsurprisingly she never married) and the young Mattie speak with exactly the same voice, that of an intelligent, analytical, independent and opinionated female, whose values, principles and convictions have not changed over the years, were in fact already formed in childhood. The bedrock of those beliefs was the Bible, and time and again Mattie interprets and glosses her own account with reference to scripture: the wicked flee when none pursueth; there is nothing free in this world except the grace of God – and other pronouncements of an absolute and uncompromising kind. It’s a voice you can still hear in parts of America today, and it is one of the greatest pieces of literary ventriloquism in fiction.
I first ‘heard’ it in 1968, immediately after I’d graduated. A fellow student from the US lent me the book and I’m ashamed to say she never got it back. I imagined that after four years of Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth it would be a nice little piece of light relief. I was also snobbish enough to think that all the great writing was over and that only hacks were at work, especially in America. What an education it was to encounter this author.
Charles Portis was a journalist who became a marine and fought in the Korean War. These simple biographical facts may in themselves help to explain the matter-of-fact masculinity of Mattie’s voice, but they do not explain why she is so convincing. This is where the literary genius comes in. Biography doesn’t explain genius, it merely tells you where to look.
The author was born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, and raised across state in Mount Holly. He described it as a bucolic dream of a place but one which had two schools, one for blacks and one for whites, and which was crowded with curious and dubious characters. His father was a seventh son, his mother the daughter of a Methodist minister, one of eleven children. The extended, sprawling family was not a particularly literary one. There was a lot of cigar smoke and laughter and chatter, a lot of long anecdotes. And mixed in with the laughter and chatter and narrative and the blue narcotic haze – a steady leavening of scripture.
Not that the Bible entirely dominated Portis’s youth – far from it. He read comics and watched Westerns like any normal boy. But the calm undercurrent of Bible-talk ran alongside the droll deadpan humour which informs much of Portis’s writing. And it is in the voice and personality of Mattie Ross that he brings everything together: the fun, the vivacity, the Westerns, the stern Bible ethic – even the tobacco. Mattie rolls a cigarette much more expertly than tough old Marshal Cogburn, informing him impatiently, ‘your makings are too dry’. This gathering together of the strands of life results in a character who has been rightly compared to Huck Finn.
I am not about to ruin the uninitiated reader’s delight in such a wonderful story by giving it away but I do want to return to its starting point. In 1873 the kind-hearted Frank Ross takes pity on a useless drifter who turns up at his farm near Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas. He hires him and keeps him on, in spite of the fact that his book-keeping daughter Mattie refers to him with contempt as ‘trash’.
Mattie’s distrust is vindicated when Chaney shoots her father in a bar-room brawl and flees into Indian Territory, joining a band of outlaws led by the notorious Ned Pepper. Mattie comments only that, apart from being a coward, he needn’t have fled the scene of the crime so hastily. The onlookers were also cowards. In running from the good citizens of Fort Smith he had mistaken them for men. They were not much better than Chaney.
So when Mattie leaves home and persuades the ageing, one-eyed, overweight, alcoholic and trigger-happy Deputy US Marshal Reuben (‘Rooster’) Cogburn to take on the job of tracking down Chaney and taking her along with him, accompanied by the vain and swanky Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, you wonder just how they will all rub along together and what will happen if they do finally catch up with Chaney and Ned Pepper’s gang of murderous and utterly immoral outlaws.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that from now on you scent blood. And an old instinct is aroused in you which you are supposed to control, but which literature allows to run rampant: the thirst not for mercy but for revenge. Mattie’s morality is the Old Testament ethic of an eye for an eye. Forgiveness is a foreign word, unheard of in this ethical desert: ‘Tom Chaney would pay for this! I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!’ Hamlet says much the same thing as he stands behind the defenceless and praying Claudius, dagger poised, waiting to strike, and the only thing that stays his hand is the thought that killing him at prayer would send him to heaven, not to hell. And you secretly cheer from the stalls, the armchair, the back row of the Odeon. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord: I am not mocked. And if God forgets or forgives, then we have to see to it ourselves. This is the world of the Icelandic sagas, where revenge is served cold but sweet. And the effect that such literature has on you is primitive, barbaric, visceral. You want to take a complete moral holiday. You want to taste blood.
Will you? Read it and find out. You’ll taste a lot more than blood along the way, you’ll taste venom. For apart from being a revenge piece with the frisson of Frankenstein and the fascination of Hamlet, this is also a novel of pursuit, driven by all the fury and formidable passion of Moby Dick. And yet another savage and Neanderthal instinct is unlocked in you as you read: the thrill of the hunt, with the lure of the kill at the end. But a prolonged hunt can take various directions, and this book goes into unexpected places. Its twists and turns make it into something more readable than anything I’ve read in a long time – which is exactly what Roald Dahl said when he first read the book forty-five years ago:
True Grit is the best novel to come my way for a very long time. I was going to say it was the best novel to come my way since . . . Then I stopped. Since what? What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last twenty? I do not know. I expect some have, but I cannot recall them right now. Marvellous it is. He hasn’t put a foot wrong anywhere. What a writer!
And there you have it – from a master storyteller who recognized a great story with a squeal of unconcealed delight.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 39 © Christopher Rush 2013