By Charles Portis
I've been going through a John Wayne phase. You can buy his films cheap if you buy them in bulk. Across three collections, I scored about 30 the Duke's films for just $80. For a little under $3 a film, it's great value. I've been going through them slowly in the past few months - some are absolutley fantastic (The Searchers and Rio Bravo are standouts so far) and some are fucking retarded (Rio Lobo... write it down; write the words 'Rio Lobo' down, commit them to memory, and make a pledge to never see that movie). The other night I got to 'True Grit' and was about to hit 'play', but then remembered I owned the book. "What the Hell," says I, "I'll watch another film tonight, and actually read True Grit before I watch the flick," (this then lead to the Rio Lobo disaster of 2008. Seriously, I can't begin to describe how pathetic Rio Lobo is. As a 19 year old girl I met recently would say, "It was AIDS.").
The book starts: "People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood..." and from that very first few words to the very last, the book was UNPUTDOWNABLE.
It is told in the voice of the fourteen year old girl, Mattie, whose father was killed by one of his workers, a man called Tom Chaney, "...a short man with cruel features."
Mattie, though young, has an exacting or calculating manner about her to the point that I surmised she had Aspbergers, and with a mix of that need for exactitude along with guts, skill, wits and a Presbyterian's old-testament longing for revenge, she doggedly hunts down Tom Chaney.
I'm not being flippant on the Aspberger's line either. I don't know if that's just the way Portis writes or whether he's brilliantly skilled at bringing a unique young girl's voice to light, but, Mattie is brilliantly formed, so unique, in a kind of manner that's not quite right but nor is it bad, or wrong, or off-putting. No, Mattie is just, well, umm, not cold as such, but full on. Fortunately, her single-mindedness is taking us on a great adventure with what could only be described as a noble cause... the taking down of a violent killer in revenge for her father's death.
To hunt down the man, she enlists the services of a mean Marshal renowned for having 'true grit'. This is 'Rooster' Cogburn (the John Wayne part), and along with a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoef (who is hunting the same man for killing a Senator back in Waco, Texas), the three hunters go deep into Indian-held territory.
It's a classic Western. It's also a classic moral tale, a classic chase, a classic adventure - it's romance free but sexy as fuck. It's got shootouts, dead horses, skeletons, rattlesnakes, Indians, double-crossers, executions... everything you want.
They talk mean. The Texas Ranger wants the killer to pay for the high-profile crime of murdering a Senator (and his dogs) back in Texas but young Mattie wants him hanged for the crime of murdering her simple and honest father.
"I want him to know he is being punished for killing my father. It is nothing to me how many dogs and fat men he killed in Texas."
"You can let him know that," said Rooster. "You can tell him to his face. You can spit on him and make him eat sand out of the road. You can put a ball in his foot and I will hold him while you do it. But we must catch him first."
I like the way Portis brings in characters for cameos (if you ever read it, watch out for the bloke 'Stonehill' who in just a few pages becomes one of the best fictional characters I've known). I like the way Mattie interacts with these cameos. The night before she leaves, she decides to sleep in the stable with her horse Little Blackie rather than waste money at the boarding-house for just a few hours' sleep (her financial acumen is a recurring theme).
The watchman was an old man. He helped me to shake out the dusty quilt that was on the bunk. I looked in on Little Blackie at his stall and made sure everything was in readiness. The watchman followed me around.
I said to him, "Are you the one that had his teeth knocked out?"
"No, that was Tim. Mine was drawn by a dentist. He called himself a dentist."
"Who are you?"
I can smell Hemingway...
Rooster, though mean and violent, has a heart under it all. Discovering two young boys torturing a mule, he frees the mule, gives the boys a' whippin' and says to one of them, "See that you mend your ways, boy, or I will come back some dark night and cut off your head and let the crows peck your eyeballs out."
It's at times a violent book, and perhaps the only time we ever get a sense that young Mattie feels fear is when an interrogation of two young cattle-thieves goes wrong. One of them, Moon, who was shot earlier, starts to spill the beans, and suddenly the situation spirals out of control. Fingers are chopped off, guns are fired, people are stabbed and Mattie records, "My thought was: I am better out of this. I tumbled backward from the bench and sought a place of safety on the dirt floor."
As Moon lays dying, he talks of his brother.
I said, "Do you want us to tell your brother what happened to you?"
He said, "It don't matter about that. He knows I am on the scout. I will meet him later walking the streets of Glory."
That'll do for extracts. You have to read it. It can be done in one sitting. One rainy afternoon, or as I did it, one empty evening tanked on coffee and Dunhills with an old cat beside me, occassionally strirring.
I wonder what it is I suddenly, in my late 30's, like so much about the Western? For starters, I like the names of things. Daniel Webster's Cigars, Stonehill's Livery Stable, The Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, and my favourite in this book, a reference to a company called 'The Great Arkansas River, Vicksburg & Gulf Steamship Company'.
I like the simple food they eat. Oh, I love gourmet chefs' stream-of-consciousness "agitated greens with Nicaraguan virgin jus" type stuff, but I also like meat and three veg. I think I even like it more, the older I get, and as these western stereotypes range across the land, whether the law or the lawless, they drink their coffee in the morning, their whiskey at night, and in between there's some salted pork, bread and maybe a bite of corn. Many smoke.
These Western stereotypes also have a pleasing mix of anarchy and freedom, but tinged with a sense of community, hard-work, morality and 'what's right and wrong'. Oh, there's a bit too much God-fearin' and that Old Testament rhetoric but I'm prepared to look past it and suggest that for then, back then, in those times, it was intellectual solace (no excuse now).
In the end maybe it's the stereotype itself that attracts me. I spent much of my late 20's banging on about post-modernism, about challenging the hegemony, bringing down stereotypes, throwing history away - stomping on it first - and starting anew with a Foucaultian Utopia where gender, race, class, sexuality, sanity and culture hardly exist beyond their entry in some dusty Museum's ledger.
But now suddenly I'm all, "Fuck it. A man's a man."
That's not denying variations thereof, nor does it condone violence or the evil that men do. Hell, it's the opposite. Sheikh Al Hilaly and his 'uncovered meat' fable diminishes the manliness of him and his flock as far as I'm concerned because real men act like real men, not like budding Satans with unbridled lusts for domination.
But saying a man is a man is a man is just saying, ecce homo, and, well, that's just how it is, and we all, deep down, know what 'being a man about things' infers.
It's the Western that right now exemplifies this for me, and this book is a highly entertaining Western.
I give it a B+.
(PS: The film 'True Grit' was a bit of a let-down of course. It was okay, but, it was largely ruined by a completely inapparopriate soundtrack (which seemed to never stop) that was lithe, light and fluffy - totally at odds with the themes of the story. Also, and I guess it's just because of when it was made and what audience they hoped to reach out to, the film, rather ironically lacked the very thing it promised most: grit.)