“True Grit” Author Charles Portis Dead at 86

His other books include "Norwood" and "The Dog of the South"

Charles Portis
Charles Portis wrote a number of acclaimed, beloved books.
Jonathan Portis

Charles Portis, the author of several acclaimed books — including the twice-adapted True Gritdied today at the age of 86.

Portis was known for being somewhat hard to find, though not quite to the extent of Thomas Pynchon. (His obituary in The New York Times noted that he disliked being referred to as a recluse.) In 2012, John Powers described Portis on the eve of the release of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. “This ex-Marine loves cars, knows guns, can’t stand hippies and lives off the media radar in Little Rock, Ark., without being famous for trying not to be famous,” wrote Powers.

The author was best known for writing True Grit, which was first adapted for the screen in 1969. That version won John Wayne an Academy Award for his portrayal of lawman Rooster Cogburn. A subsequent adaptation of the novel, released in 2010, was written and directed by the Coen Brothers and executive produced by Steven Spielberg.

But if you only know Portis via True Grit, you only know part of his range as a writer. From the bleakly comedic The Dog of the South to the conspiracy-obsessed narrative of Masters of Atlantis, Portis carved out a distinctive corner of American fiction. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2011, Julia Cline revisited Portis’s past as a journalist and mapped it onto the arc of his life as a writer:

… the ex-reporter from Arkansas likely has a clear sense of social justice, but also a personal connection to characters viewed by much of the reading world — then, and now — as backwoods or backwater.

Alternately, as Charles McGrath phrased it in The New York Times in 2010:

But in one way or another the subtext of all these novels is the great Melvillean theme of the American weakness for secret conspiracies and arcane knowledge, and our embrace of con men, scam artists and flimflammers of every sort. In Mr. Portis’s pantheon of tricksters, moreover, writers rank pretty high.

Trying to precisely pin down Portis’s aesthetic isn’t easy, but that’s precisely why he remains so beloved as a writer. And while he himself is gone, his work remains, as vital as it ever was.

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