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Charles Portis


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#1 du Garbandier

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Posted 03 May 2010 - 10:49 AM

Charles Portis is the author of 5 novels--Norwood (1966), True Grit (1968), The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1984) and Gringos (1991)--and a handful of stories. His unforgettable zany chronicles of itinerants and eccentrics, combined with his reclusiveness and long literary silences, has earned him a small but extremely devoted following. Ron Rosenbaum, one of Portis's biggest boosters, wrote in a January 1998 piece in Esquire that drew much attention to Portis: "...Portis has become the subject of a kind of secret society, a small but extremely elite (if I say so myself) group of admirers among other writers who consider him perhaps the least-known great writer alive in America. Perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent over-looked by literary culture in America. A writer who--if there's any justice in literary history as opposed to literary celebrity will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a twentieth-century Mark Twain..."

Rosenbaum's piece is collected in his volume of essays, The Secret Parts of Fortune, and he has also written on Portis in the New York Observer. "Like Cormac Mccarthy, But Funny" is a splendid introduction to Portis by Ed Park in The Believer.

All 5 of Charles Portis's novels have been reissued by Overlook Press. My favorite has to be The Dog of the South. True Grit is being adapted for film by the Coen brothers, and I hear that they are relying somewhat more on the book than the famous John Wayne version did (which won Wayne his only Oscar, incidentally).

The narrator of The Dog of the South is copy editor Ray Midge, who is searching after his wife Norma and her ex-husband Guy Dupree, who ran away together with Ray's car and credit cards. Along the way Ray meets itinerant huckster Dr. Reo Symes:

I learned that he had been dwelling in the shadows for several years. He had sold hi-lo shag carpet remnants and velvet paintings from the back of a truck in California. He had sold wide shoes by mail, shoe that must have been almost round, at widths up to EEEEEE. He had sold gladiola bulbs and vitamins for men and fat-melting pills and all-purpose hooks and hail-damaged pears. He had picked up small fees counseling veterans on how to fake chest pains so as to gain immediate admission to V.A. hospitals and a free week in bed. He had sold ranchettes in Colorado and unregistered securities in Arkansas.


Ray has the following conversiation with the pious Mrs. Symes, mother of Reo:

"Why kind of Christian do you call yourself?"
"I attend church when I can."
"Cards on the table, Mr. Midge."
"Well, I think I have a religious nature. I sometimes find it hard to determine God's will."
"Inconvenient, you mean."
"That too, yes."
"What does it take to keep you from attending church?"
"I go when I can."
"A light rain?"
"I go when I can."
"This 'religious nature' business reminds me of Reo, your man of science. He'll try to tell you that god is out there in the trees an grass somewhere. Some kind of force. That's pretty thin stuff if you ask me. And Father Jackie is not much better. He says God is a perfect sphere. A ball, if you will."
"There are many different opinions on the subject."
"Did you suppose I didn't know that?"


Mrs. Symes then inquires about Reo, and her friend Melba joins in:

"Is that woman Sybill still living with him?"
"I just don't know about that. He was by himself when I met him in Mexico."
"Good riddance then. He brought an old hussy named Sybil with him the last time. She had great big bushy eyebrows like a man. She and Reo were trying to open up a restaurant somewhere in California and they wanted me to put up the money for it. As if I had any money. Reo tells everybody I have money."
Melba said, "No, it was a singing school. Reo wanted to open a singing school."
"The singing school was an entirely different thing, Melba. This was a restaurant they were talking about. Little Bit of Austria. Sybil was going to sing some kind of foreign songs to the customers while they were eating. She said she was a night-club singer, and a dancer too. She planned to dance all around people's tables while they were trying to eat. I thought these night clubs had beautiful young girls to do that kind of thing but Sybil was almost as old as Reo."
"Older," said Melba. "Don't you remember her arms?"
"They left in the middle of the night. I remember that. Just picked up and left without a word."
"Sybil didn't know one end of a piano keyboard from the other."
"She wore shiny boots and backless dresses."
"But she didn't wear a girdle."
"She wore hardly anything when she was sunning herself back there in the yard."
"Her shameful parts were covered."
"That goes without saying, Melba. It wasn't necessary for you to say that and make us all think about it."


Charles Portis, comic genius.

#2 du Garbandier

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Posted 17 December 2010 - 08:35 PM

Bumped, because of the True Grit movie.

#3 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 05:57 PM

Bumped, because of the True Grit movie.

I'm reading through True Grit right now. I'm sold. I want the other four Charles Portis novels. More when I finish it ...

#4 Christian

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Posted 03 November 2011 - 07:03 PM

du Garbandier has me convinced. That, and the fact that none of the other, several eaudiobook titles and authors I checked for are currently available.

So Portis it is. The only novel of his available, other than True Grit, is Norwood, so I'm starting with that one.

Edited by Christian, 03 November 2011 - 07:03 PM.


#5 du Garbandier

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Posted 03 November 2011 - 08:53 PM

du Garbandier has me convinced. That, and the fact that none of the other, several eaudiobook titles and authors I checked for are currently available.

So Portis it is. The only novel of his available, other than True Grit, is Norwood, so I'm starting with that one.


Beware of some of the audiobooks. I was halfway through listening to Audible's edition of The Dog of the South (still my favorite Portis, incidentally) when, checking it against my paperback copy, I realized it was abridged, despite being advertised on Audible as unabridged. It's the version narrated by Edward Lewis lasting a little under 7 hours. I don't know about the other Portis audiobooks but they might be abridged too.

Edited by du Garbandier, 03 November 2011 - 08:55 PM.


#6 Christian

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Posted 04 November 2011 - 09:39 AM


du Garbandier has me convinced. That, and the fact that none of the other, several eaudiobook titles and authors I checked for are currently available.

So Portis it is. The only novel of his available, other than True Grit, is Norwood, so I'm starting with that one.


Beware of some of the audiobooks. I was halfway through listening to Audible's edition of The Dog of the South (still my favorite Portis, incidentally) when, checking it against my paperback copy, I realized it was abridged, despite being advertised on Audible as unabridged. It's the version narrated by Edward Lewis lasting a little under 7 hours. I don't know about the other Portis audiobooks but they might be abridged too.

Thanks for the warning. The Norwood audiobook is only four discs, or "parts," but I just figured it was a short book. I'll look more closely.

#7 Christian

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 08:42 PM



du Garbandier has me convinced. That, and the fact that none of the other, several eaudiobook titles and authors I checked for are currently available.

So Portis it is. The only novel of his available, other than True Grit, is Norwood, so I'm starting with that one.


Beware of some of the audiobooks. I was halfway through listening to Audible's edition of The Dog of the South (still my favorite Portis, incidentally) when, checking it against my paperback copy, I realized it was abridged, despite being advertised on Audible as unabridged. It's the version narrated by Edward Lewis lasting a little under 7 hours. I don't know about the other Portis audiobooks but they might be abridged too.

Thanks for the warning. The Norwood audiobook is only four discs, or "parts," but I just figured it was a short book. I'll look more closely.

Turns out the Norwood audiobook is unabridged, but I couldn't get into it during this morning's run. I'll leave it on my iPod for now, but Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow came in today and I think I'll move on to that book for now.

#8 Gavin Breeden

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 05:05 PM

On a big Portis kick right now. Read True Grit last year because I loved the Coen's adaptation so much. (To be honest, I just slightly preferred the Coen's film to the novel. I know, I know, you're not supposed to do that. But I've found that I sometimes prefer what I first experience whether it's book or movie.)

This fall I read Norwood, re-read True Grit (almost liked it better than the movie this time), and I just started The Dog of the South. Interestingly, these three novels are all "journey" books. Norwood goes to NYC to get back the $70 someone owes him, Mattie Ross heads into Chocktaw Nation in search of her father's killer, and Ray Midge uses credit card receipts to follow his runaway wife and her lover into Mexico.

I imagine I'll read the other two Portis novels in the next few months. Also, there's a new book which collects some of Portis' journalism, short stories, and a play that he's written.

Anyway, I really like this guy. Still living in Little Rock and they say you can find him hanging around the movie theaters and bars. Hasn't published a novel since 1991. Seems unlikely to publish another, though there are Salinger-ish rumors swirling around that he's been working on one for years or that he's finished one (or several) but doesn't care about publishing it (them).

#9 du Garbandier

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Posted 17 December 2012 - 01:56 PM

Also, there's a new book which collects some of Portis' journalism, short stories, and a play that he's written.


Splendid. I hadn't heard about this.

#10 Christian

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Posted 28 February 2013 - 08:55 PM

Laura Miller says the new audio version of Norwood has turned her into a Portis fan. I tried to listen to an earlier Norwood audiobook from my local library, but it's narrated by Barrett Whitener, not David Aaron Baker. I couldn't finish it, even though it's short. I suppose it's one of the earlier audio versions of the novel that struck Miller "as drab and clipped."

#11 Christian

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Posted 14 August 2013 - 10:23 PM

Dan Kois revisited Norwood as part of his mass-market paperback beach reading, catalogued at Slate.


Edited by Christian, 14 August 2013 - 10:24 PM.


#12 Christian

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Posted 22 November 2013 - 07:45 PM

Laura Miller says the new audio version of Norwood has turned her into a Portis fan. I tried to listen to an earlier Norwood audiobook from my local library, but it's narrated by Barrett Whitener, not David Aaron Baker. I couldn't finish it, even though it's short. I suppose it's one of the earlier audio versions of the novel that struck Miller "as drab and clipped."

The new audio version has been named by Katherine Powers in the Washington Post as one of the Best Audiobooks of 2013.