The Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit helped bring Charles Portis’ 1968 novel back to bestseller lists, reminding readers what a gem of a book it is. The somewhat reclusive Arkansas writer had been off the literary radar for a while—his last novel, Gringos, published in 1991, was only his fifth since his 1966 debut, Norwood. That lack of productivity must be the culprit behind Portis’ relative obscurity—anyone who has read his work knows it is certainly not due to lack of talent.
Fellow Little Rock-based journalist Jay Jennings, one of the writer’s self-avowed biggest fans, has spent years squirreling away anything he could find written by or about Portis. This “Portis file” is the basis for a new compendium, Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, which gathers some of the previously uncollected fiction and nonfiction of the man Ron Rosenbaum (in a tribute essay included in the book) calls “a maddeningly under-appreciated American writer . . . the only man to penetrate the true heart of dimness.” Most of Portis’ writing is comic in nature, but it is foolhardy to pigeonhole him. His work is keenly observed, deadpan, ironic and indisputably entertaining, but it speaks on a deeper level to the peculiarly American psyche.
An American original gets the star treatment in a new collection.
Portis began his writing life as a newspaper reporter, and the book collects a number of early pieces from the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Arkansas Gazette, and later writing from the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked during that paper’s legendary final days. These range from a light report about a Brooklyn longshoreman who fights in court to keep a pet lion, to more serious dispatches from the South during the battle for Civil Rights, including the riots in Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers. Travel pieces he wrote for a variety of publications take Portis from Nashville to Baja, California, to a series of isolated motels in New Mexico. An autobiographical essay that first ran in The Atlantic offers a family snapshot from 1943, the year the future writer turned nine.
Just four examples of short fiction are featured in the book, including a hilarious 1977 humor piece from the New Yorker that mimics the “action line” column in a small-town newspaper. The most recent story, from 2005, is really a eulogy to the death of print journalism that plays off the old notion that, given typewriters and enough time, monkeys could reproduce the works of Shakespeare. Indeed, journalists bear the brunt of Portis’ (good-natured) ribbing. A character in his only play, Delray’s New Moon, a collision of Samuel Beckett and Noël Coward set halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana (produced only once and printed here for the first time), lumps newspapermen with “other bystanders, onlookers, eavesdroppers and talebearers.”
The labeling of Escape Velocity as the first new book from Portis in 20 years is a bit misleading, since none of the material is, strictly speaking, new. But Jennings has done a great service by bringing it all together in one welcome volume, especially since a new book from this 78-year-old American original does not seem to be in the cards.