Charles Portis, Collected Works
Editor, Jay Jennings
The Library of America
The Library of America offers homage in a new collected works edition to American author Charles Portis, whose notoriety springs from his novel, “True Grit,” that was transformed into a popular 1968 feature film starring John Wayne. The novel depicts the journey of a fourteen-year-old girl who treks into the Choctaw Nation to avenge her father’s death.
Portis, who was born in 1933 in Arkansas and died there in 2020, was initially a journalist. His reporting was notable for details, such as in his coverage of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. In “How the Night Exploded into Terror,” Portis describes an incident where The Ku Klux Klan met, followed by the bombing of the Gaston Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, headquarters of Black leaders. Then, as rioting begins, “it took four hours to stop, and then just short of gunfire,” he writes, adding that Police Chief Jamie Moore held back gun use for crowd control.
Portis left his promising journalism career to write novels and essays instead. In “An Auto Odyssey Through Darkest Baja,” he guides the reader through a hot and torturous trip with a friend from Los Angeles to Mexico. His vehicle, a gray Studebaker truck named “Diamondback Rattler,” could easily be the protagonist since the narrative centers around multiple repairs due to challenging road conditions. An eight-day, nearly 1,200-mile midsummer journey brought them to La Paz, just short of the tip of Baja.
Later, Portis returns to Mexico and rents an apartment in San Miguel de Allende. Then, he settles in Little Rock, Arkansas, but continues to travel and live in Mexico and Central America, sites that become settings for other novels. In “The Dog of the South,” Ray Midge heads into Mexico to recover his wife Norma and his Torino, both stolen by Guy Dupree. This is a character-driven story, as Midge narrates his encounters in his quest.
The novel “Gringos” has a more developed plot. Although Jimmy Burns has given up looting pre-Colombian artifacts, he still hangs around Mexico doing favors for locals, and as a bounty hunter for Americans to find runaways or criminals. Tension ensues as Burns and a few hangers-on walk to Guatemala when their vehicle breaks down at an archaeological dig while searching for an bizarre man who is mapping UFO landing sites.
Portis’ stories shed light on the destruction of ancient Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala. And the people he encounters while living in Mexico often became his book characters. In “Gringos,” for example, he describes people in Mexico as of two kinds: Those not wanted in the USA, and those wanted in the USA.
The edition includes Portis’ first novel, “Norwood,” also “Masters of Atlantis,” and as well as short stories and essays. He’s mostly unrecognized as a notable American writer, but this collection gives him deserved credit for his works.