When I saw that Joel and Ethan Coen were doing a remake of the old 1969 Henry Hathaway western, True Grit, I realized that I had never actually read the book on which it was based. So I got a copy. Then I discovered that the fellow who wrote this book lives where I do. He's practically a neighbor of mine. And yet the more I learn about him, the more I realize that I'll never get to meet him.
His name is Charles Portis but most folks call him "Buddy." He was born on December 28, 1933, in El Dorado, Arkansas. He apparently likes to hang out at a restaurant just down the hill from where I live. It's a cajun-type place which probably suits his tastes since he grew up down in the southern part of Arkansas along the Louisiana border. Anyway, Mr. Portis apparently likes to hang out at the bar, having a few drinks, reading the paper, watching a ball game on the TV. But the one thing he dislikes most of all is being recognized. A friend of mine who has been in the media and newspaper business here all his life told me that he was with a bunch of folks one night at this restaurant and one of them saw Mr. Portis at the bar. He got excited and exclaimed to the others at the table, "Hey, that's Buddy Portis up there, isn't it?" My friend told him, "Yeah." He said, "I hate to do this but I have to talk to him." So he left the table and my friend said to the others, "Watch what happens now." The fan went up and shook Buddy's hand, pumping it like well handle on a hot day, telling him he just "loved your work and been wanting to tell you what a big fan I've been all these years," blah blah blah. And the minute he turned around to come back to the table, Portis hurriedly grabbed his stuff and rushed out the front door.
If I ever see him at this restaurant/bar joint, I will not bother him. For a couple of reasons. First of all, it is just fucking rude to do that to anyone you don't know. If you saw your favorite author, singer, songwriter, actor, etc. walking down the aisle at an airport or sitting in a restaurant, would you make a point of introducing yourself and telling them how much you "love their work"? I hope not. How about just nodding your head and saying, "Hello, Mr. Portis," and leaving it at that. If they want to talk to you, they'll give you a signal. And if they don't, do them the courtesy of leaving them the hell alone. It's just common sense. Second of all, Charles Portis is not the greatest writer on the planet or even close. Now that I've finished reading True Grit (and it doesn't take long; it's more of a long story than it is a novel) I think I have a better understanding of why Buddy Portis shuns the limelight. And I think it's probably the same reason Salinger acted the way he did his whole life after Catcher in the Rye became such a big deal. I don't think either of these fellows really thought of themselves as serious writers and were somewhat embarrassed by the sudden overwhelming acclaim their amateurish novels received.
Did you see that South Park parody of the whole J.D. Salinger thing the other night? It was one of their worst shows ever, but it did convey the salient point that all the praise and fawning over Salinger is just ridiculous. I mean, didn't you just want to slap the shit out of Holden Caufield about half a dozen times in that book? Or did he exemplify all your teen angst at just the right intervals to make you love him like a brother? If so, you'd probably have been all over Salinger in an airport. Which is exactly why he didn't go to them for several decades. I just wanted to slap the shit out of Mattie Ross about half a dozen times while reading True Grit. She sure wasn't the same character portrayed in the original film. I'm sincerely hoping that the ironic bleakness of the Coen's can put a better spin on this girl. She should not be portrayed as a cute little daddy's girl as Kim Darby did in the original. She's a real little bitch, truth be told, and deserves the famous "spanking scene" just as much as Holden Caufield would have if someone could have pulled him out of that story and gotten their hands on him.
True Grit reads more like an extended newspaper story than it does a novel. Or perhaps I should say it reads more like a stage play on paper. There are very few "flights of fancy" or evidence of "deep thought." (The use of quotation marks such as this for regular expressions in the book is very off-putting). There is a lot of dialogue about the plot points and I suppose books such as this are just perfect for making into movies. Maybe that's why the answer is almost always, "The movie was better," when comparing it to the book. Pulp fiction often makes a better screenplay than does real art.
Apparently Jeff Bridges will be playing the John Wayne part of Rooster Cogburn. Did you know the only Best Actor Oscar John Wayne ever won was for this part? I think it was one of those things where the Academy was honoring the old man (62 at the time) for what he'd done before and what they'd overlooked than they were for anything else. They like to do that. Matt Damon will be playing the role of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Another Arkansan, Glen Campbell, played that part somewhat awkwardly in the first one.
The villain, Tom Chaney, who has a Cain-like gunpowder mark on his face, will be played by Josh Brolin.
The villain is named Chaney and the protagonist pines for the days of Woodrow Wilson. She hasn't a good word to say for Republicans and opines that all the good folks in Arkansas are proud Democrats. Some of you and your fellow travelers might like to read this book just for those reasons. (I have a sneaking suspicion that Arkansas is going to be a lot less Democrat in November of this year. As are a lot of other states.)
So, my opinion of the cult classic Portis book, True Grit? Meh. My media/newspaper friend tells me that The Dog of the South might be a better book. I'm going to try it next. Apparently there's a really good line in there that I read in a review, and I want to read the whole book to see how it fits in. Someone is trying to make someone else see how fragile life is, sort of along the lines of that Flaming Lips song, "Do You Realize," I suppose. Anyway, he says, "All the little animals of your youth are long dead." But her friend replies, "Except for turtles." You have got to love a line like that. It's about as close to a "deep thought" as Buddy Portis is likely to get.
Mr. Portis was a newspaper man for many years, with several local papers as well as some time in London. Here's a snippet of an interview he did (to end this with).
"I had Karl Marx’s old job there, you know. He was the London correspondent for Horace Greeley’s 'New York Tribune' in the 1850s. Dick Wald was my New York boss, and I told him once that the Tribune might have saved us all a lot of grief if it had only paid Marx a little better."