Donna Tartt on the Singular Voice, and Pungent Humor, of Charles Portis

It is likely no surprise to readers who love the novels of Charles Portis that everything delightful about his books was delightful about him as a person. The surprise, if anything, was how closely his personality tallied with his work. He was blunt and unpretentious, wholly without conceit. He was polite. He was kind. His puzzlement at the 21st-century world in which he found himself was deep and unfeigned. And yet almost everything out of his mouth was dry, new and pungently funny.

Portis died in February. I’ve loved his work all my life — “The Dog of the South” is a family favorite, as is “Masters of Atlantis” — though the work closest to me is “True Grit,” which I recorded as an audiobook a number of years ago. I’m often asked how I came to record another author’s book; most simply, the answer is voice. I grew up hearing “True Grit” read aloud to me by my mother and my grandmother and even my great-grandmother. This was a tremendous gift, as Portis caught better than any writer then alive the complex and highly inflected regional vernacular I heard spoken as a child — mannered and quaint, old-fashioned and highly constructed but also blunt, roughshod, lawless, inflected by Shakespeare and Tennyson and King James but also by agricultural gazetteers and frilly old Christian pamphlets, by archaic dictionaries of phrase and fable, by the voices of mule drivers and lady newspaper poets and hanging judges and hellfire preachers.

Then too, the books are so funny that they cry to be read aloud. Pick up any novel by Portis and open it to any page and you will find something so devastatingly strange and fresh and hilarious that you will want to run into the next room and read it aloud to somebody. His language is precise but whimsical, understated but anarchic, and as with Barbara Pym or P.G. Wodehouse, it’s tough to communicate the flavor of it without resorting to long quotes. All readers who love Portis have lines they like to swap back and forth; and a conversation among his admirers will mostly consist of such gems — committed to memory — exchanged and mutually admired. One thinks of Dr. Buddy Casey’s lecture on the Siege of Vicksburg, which Raymond Midge, the narrator of “The Dog of the South,” plays again and again on Sunday drives and at the shaving mirror, an action that, we are given to understand, has helped to drive away his wife, Norma. Ray explains: “I had heard the tape hundreds of times and yet each time I would be surprised and delighted anew by some bit of Casey genius, some description or insight or narrative passage or sound effect. The bird peals, for instance. Dr. Bud gives a couple of unexpected bird calls in the tense scene where Grant and Pemberton are discussing surrender terms under the oak tree. The call is a stylized one — tu-whit, tu-whee — and is not meant to represent that of any particular bird. It has never failed to catch me by surprise. But no one could hope to keep the whole of that lecture in his head at once, such are its riches.”

Such too are the riches of Portis. His characters, who like the characters of Samuel Beckett often find themselves thrown in with one another on long perplexing journeys, are single-minded and completely un-self-conscious innocents (veterans, pedants, failed schoolteachers and salesmen) whose speech startles and delights, on nearly every page. Though it’s often said of Portis that he’s the least known of great American novelists, I cannot think of another 20th-century writer — any writer, American or otherwise — whose works are beloved among quite so many differing age groups and literary tastes, from the most sophisticated to the simplest. Walker Percy was a fan; so was Roald Dahl. As Wells Tower pointed out in The New Yorker: “Portis’s diffident, modestly gallant characters were a world away from the marital bonfires and priapisms of other male writers of his crop — Roth, Updike, Yates. His male heroes practiced a masculinity that by the standards of the day was uniquely (and unfashionably) nontoxic.”


Comedy is the most ephemeral of the arts. There are very few comic novels that do not wither with time, and even fewer novels — comic or otherwise — that can be given to pretty much anyone, from an old person to a small child. Even more rare is a novel one can reliably turn to for cheer when one is sick or sad. But “True Grit” is this rare novel, and Mattie Ross, its narrator, is one of the greatest of Portis’s innocents: a Presbyterian spinster who in old age relates the story of how, as a child, she struck out in the 1870s to avenge her father’s murder. “People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” It’s a serious book by any measure; Mattie’s rage and grief are thunderous (“What a waste! Tom Chaney would pay for this! I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!”) and yet perhaps the greatest pleasure of the book is Mattie’s speaking voice: rambling, deadpan, didactic, sprinkled with oddball opinions and facts, obstinate in its views and acute in its observations. Of Chaney, the hired man who murdered her father (“He was a short man with cruel features. I will tell more about his face later”), she has this to say: “He had no gun but he carried his rifle slung across his back on a piece of cotton plow line. There is trash for you. He could have taken an old piece of harness and made a nice leather strap for it. That would have been too much trouble.”

It’s hard not to go on with the quotes; suffice it to say that I could hear my grandmother’s voice — and a bit of my own — very clearly in this. But though I knew how wonderful a book it was to read aloud, I also felt there was very little chance of interesting Portis in an audiobook recording. After abruptly quitting his job as London bureau chief of The New York Herald Tribune in the early 1960s, he had gone back to live in his native Arkansas, and no one in New York had seen him for years. People liked to use the word “recluse,” which, I suspected, spoke less to an abnormal way of life than to an ex-newspaperman’s natural distrust of the press. It seemed clear enough in any case that he didn’t enjoy dealing with inquiries about his novels. But I drummed up my courage and asked anyway, and much to my surprise his number was passed along to me with the message: Call him. He wants to talk to you.

How many times in life does one have the chance to speak to a writer revered from childhood? In 2004, around noon on a weekday, I found myself standing in my kitchen in Virginia with Portis’s telephone number in hand. I had been informed that he did not like to talk on the telephone and was bad about not picking up. But somewhat to my surprise he answered right away.

A slow, rich Southern voice, reminiscent of the actor Randy Quaid. “Mr. Portis?” I said, but instead of the introduction I was ready to make, there followed instead a leisurely and highly surreal exchange that I am at a loss to replicate — something to do with backfiring cars? and knocks on the door? — which continued at cross-purposes for some moments until, without missing a beat, he said pleasantly: “Oh I beg your pardon. I thought you were my crank caller.”

I held the line, not knowing what to say. There seemed no clear way to move forward. Had I offended him? “I’m sorry —”

“Oh no. It is just that I have a regular crank caller and almost every day he telephones about this time. If I don’t pick up he rings and rings.”

“Do you know who it is?”

“No, it is just some prankster. Local, I think. Many people around here do not seem to have much to do.”

“That must be a big nuisance.”

“No. To tell you the truth I am a little disappointed on the days he does not telephone. I have come to look forward to his calls.”

“I can get off the phone if you want me to,” I offered.

“No. There is no need to do that. He will call me back if he finds the line is busy.” Then: “Where are you calling from?”


“You don’t sound like a Virginian.”

“I’m not.”

“That’s a curious accent. The Virginia accent. A lot of Virginians sound more or less like Canadians to me. You sound like you are from around here.”

I explained that I was from across the river, in Mississippi, and how my family and I knew his books practically by heart and how I hoped he might permit me to make an audio recording of “True Grit” — I had his book beside me at the telephone, a reading prepared — but the actual purpose of my call did not seem to interest him. “Are your people still in Mississippi?” he asked, reverting bewilderingly to the only fact that had caught his attention.

“More or less. The ones not dead, anyway. But the dead ones too.”

“Then what are you doing up there? Whereabouts in Virginia are you?”

I told him. “That is near the town of Charlotte Court House,” he said. “And also along the line of Lee’s Retreat. Did you know that the town of Charlotte Court House was once called Marysville? That is what it must have been called when Patrick Henry gave a version of his ‘Liberty or Death’ speech there. At some point after the war they changed its name to Charlotte Court House. I don’t actually know why they did that. They loved to rename those towns in Virginia. For example, the little town of Courtland was once known as ‘Jerusalem.’”

Credit…Larry Obsitnik/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, via Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville

I was impressed that he was able to pull all this stuff off the top of his head. A long, relaxed conversation ensued, which might as well have been taking place in 1890 between me and a veteran of the Civil War, for its utter lack of any reference whatsoever beyond the Reconstruction South: Appomattox, High Bridge, Gen. William “Billy” Mahone and his lively counterattack in the late-war siege of Petersburg. The cotton trade. Dogs. Guns. Dogs. I noted particularly the fixed hum on his end of the line — the same rotary-phone hum I always heard when I called my grandmother in Mississippi. Although I didn’t want the conversation to end, I still had my copy of “True Grit” by the phone, open to my place, and at some point, by way of Rooster Cogburn’s Civil War service (Charlie’s voice was not unlike what I imagined Rooster Cogburn’s might be), I managed to work back around to it. “Would you like for me to read a line or two from the book?” I asked. “I have it right here.”

“Naw,” he said, “you’re a good Mattie, you’ll do just fine,” and then kept talking, as if we were riding for the sixth hour on horseback together on some country road.

We corresponded after that, and spoke on the telephone — my thought being that if he welcomed annoyance callers so warmly, he might not mind sometimes hearing from me. He was modest about his achievements and uninterested in talking about his life as a novelist or indeed about novels, period; though the diction of his books — effortless as birdsong — pervaded his every spoken sentence, from his conversation one would never suspect that he’d written a novel at all, much less several great ones. His preferred subjects were local history, his boyhood in Arkansas, his time in the military (a postscript to a 2006 letter informs me: “This stamp shows your fellow Virginian and legendary Marine hero Chesty Puller. He was my commanding officer years ago at Camp Lejeune, N.C.”) and above all his life as a newspaperman (somewhat perplexingly to me, he regarded himself mainly as a former newspaperman instead of the major and singular American novelist he was). Thanks to his time on The Memphis Commercial Appeal, he knew very well the Memphis of my childhood, Memphis being the nearest city of any size to my little North Mississippi town. (Regarding Mississippi: “Why do you all like to write so much over there? The Arkansan novelist is a much rarer fowl.”) As a young reporter he had attended the funeral of Elvis’s mother — a story in itself — and we talked about the hysteria in Memphis after Elvis’s death, nearly 20 years later, when weeping businessmen had taken to the airwaves in lieu of their regular commercials, wailing: “Sleep warm, Elvis!”

We established that I was related to the fearsome Memphis judge Beverly Boushé, about whom Charlie had written when in 1958 Judge Beverly presided over a mock trial of a group of Indiana Jaycees, who for some unknown reason had chosen to re-enact a flatboat trip that Abe Lincoln made down the Mississippi River at age 19. (When the Jaycees were removed from the flatboat and hauled before him by other Jaycees costumed as Rebs, Judge Boushé let them off by pronouncing them honorary Confederates and granting them miniature keys to the city.) I told him that my great-grandfather, Judge Beverly’s uncle, had spoken proudly all his life about his meeting in Memphis with the elderly outlaw Frank James, where Mattie herself had met Frank James at likely round about the same time. (Mattie, in the book, was less impressed than my great-grandfather; though she is taken with “the courteous old outlaw” Cole Younger, when James rises to greet her she says: “Keep your seat, trash!”)

Then too there was my Boushé grandmother, who numbered among the many books she’d inherited from her father the works of 19th-century author Ignatius L. Donnelly (“Atlantis: The Antediluvian World”), whose colorful ideas informed those of Mr. Jimmerson and Austin Popper in “Masters of Atlantis.” These, like Mr. Jimmerson, she regarded as sound scientific fact, to the point of suggesting that I build a scale model of Atlantis for a ninth-grade science fair. (It speaks to the academic standards of my school that I got a good grade for this project, my science teacher failing to recognize that even a very carefully constructed scale model of Atlantis in no way constituted Science.) My grandmother was the one who’d given me “True Grit” to read at age 10. Like Mattie herself, she had also been an indefatigable writer of historical articles for our town newspaper.

“And I expect she was a pretty good writer herself, too,” Charlie said generously.

“Well, no,” I said.

“That may not have been her fault. A lot of those old birds got the starch knocked out of them by heavy-handed copy editors.”

“Not her. She would be writing about Grover Cleveland and go off on some rant about the danger of water fluoridization.”

“My point exactly. Those are just the kind of lively asides I enjoy.”

He was right, of course. If there’s a guiding style of Portis’s books, it’s those tangents and lively asides. (When I asked him about the origins of “True Grit,” he told me that after he left The Tribune and “didn’t have much to do” he liked nothing better than to go to the library and read rambling “local color” pieces in the archives of rural newspapers.) Those homely old American voices — by turns formal, tragicomic and haunting — are crystallized on every page of his work, with the immediacy one sometimes sees in a daguerreotype 150 years old. One would have to return to the 19th century, and Twain, to find another author who captured those particular cadences as well as he. More than this, he understood at the highest level those same voices filtered through advertisements and film of the mid-20th century; hence the hilarious, incisive and equally pure diction of “Norwood” and “The Dog of the South” and his other books set in the ’60s and ’70s.

Credit…via Jonathan Portis

After “True Grit” was reissued in England, with an afterword written by me, Charlie was distressed by the cover the publisher had chosen: a drawing of a handgun that he knew intimately in every historical, cultural and technical specific, down to the feet per second and the grain of bullet it took — a “gangster gat” all wrong for Mattie Ross or any character of the era. He had done the British publisher the favor of writing them an extremely detailed and informative letter setting them straight on American firearms of the period, and was pained when “some youngster in the art department” wrote back reassuring him that no one would know the difference. This cavalier attitude of our British cousins — “playing fast and loose with names, dates, facts, &c.” — he knew all too well from his time in London on The Tribune. “And,” he noted gloomily, “their ideas about America — mostly out of date folklore from movies, which was wrong to start with — are fixed and unchangeable.”

Not long after this, Charlie, true to form, really did stop answering his phone. Had I done something to annoy him? Or had the prankster grown to be too much? The letters, never very many, stopped as well. (The postscript of his final letter, which makes me laugh even though it’s the last line he ever wrote me: “When may we expect another lively Donna Tartt novel?”) He never called me, I always called him, and not until much later did I learn the real reason for the halt in our conversation: He had Alzheimer’s. This is hard to square with Charlie’s minute and highly specific knowledge of (among many other things) firearms, geography and American history, and even harder to square with the deadpan, playful, low-key wit that had seeped into my bloodstream via his novels long before I met him.

I’d give a lot right now to hear what he had to say about the flu epidemic of 1918. The flu epidemic makes a brief appearance in “True Grit,” and it’s exactly the sort of historical subject upon which he could converse with the fluency and anecdote of someone who’d survived it personally. More than that, I wish I’d gone to Arkansas to see him; he’d asked me to and was perplexed to learn I did not drive. (This will be amusing to any reader of his novels, particularly “Gringos” and “The Dog of the South,” in which automobiles and automotive maintenance form the basis of a stern and knightly code.)

As for the novels, they’ve gotten me through times of bleakness and uncertainty from fifth grade to now, and are a never-ending source of amazement, gratitude and joy. All writers who attempt to convey their magic eventually knock into the problem: How to describe the indescribable? Probably the best description I can give of “True Grit” is that I’ve never given it to any reader — male or female, of any age or sensibility — who didn’t enjoy it. As for the others, which I love just as much, they are if anything weirder and funnier, filled with some of the best and most particular American vernacular ever written, and even amid the scrape of Covid-driven anxiety they’ve convulsed me with laughter and given me some of the few moments of escape that I’ve found.

We never talked about publishing or the literary world; it was of no interest to him. The closest he ever came was a passing mention of “the quality lit game” (dutifully attributing the quote to Terry Southern) as if “quality lit” were a concern in which he himself had no part. But it was a game he played at the highest level, despite the fact that he had no inclination to play it in the conventional chest-beating, ego-driven way. His pitch was pure. There was no meanness in him. He understood, and conveyed, the grain of America, in ways that may prove valuable in future to historians trying to understand what was decent about us as a nation. And I can’t help thinking that the novels he left us will continue to provide refuge and comfort for readers, perhaps in times even darker than our own.

Donna Tartt is the author of three novels, most recently “The Goldfinch.”

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