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Portishead: The Literary Genius of Charles Portis

Once at a party in New York, I met novelist Jonathan Lethem,” Jay Jennings, the editor of Escape Velocity, says in his introduction to this collection of lesser-known writings by and about Charles Portis, the beloved, publicity-allergic writer from Little Rock, Arkansas. “[I] mentioned the idea that [Portis] was our greatest unknown novelist, and he quipped, ‘Yes, he’s everybody’s favorite least-known great novelist.’” That’s a good way to think about it. Portis is a rarefied taste, but by now lots of people have acquired it.

I first got into Portis when The Atlantic ran an excerpt from his novel Gringos in 1990. I thought it was hilarious, so I dashed off to a library to hunt down his other books. Around that time, my mother-in-law loaned me her cherished old copy of Portis’s debut novel from 1966, the comic masterpiece Norwood—a generous act that I repaid by keeping it and hoping she wouldn’t notice. (She did.) This sort of thing is pretty common among Portis fans: you read one novel and you’re hooked. When you’re not clutching your little treasures (every novel except True Grit used to be hard to find), you’re bugging your friends to get with the program. Jennings, who is 54, backed into his appreciation in a similar way. As a kid in the ’60s, he was familiar with True Grit—the best-seller that made Portis famous in 1968—thanks to the wooden John Wayne movie, which gave many people the wrong impression that Portis was a plodding writer of westerns. But it wasn’t until 1984, when Jennings read a New York Times article about Portis’s third novel, The Dog of the South, that he became a hardcore fan.

Portis is often called a cult writer, but the appeal has long been there for people who love funny novels and like to share their enthusiasm. In fact, the books are such a blast that readers sometimes launch actual crusades on their behalf. In 1984, a group of bookstore employees in New York protested the poor commercial showing of The Dog of the South, which had been published to good reviews but so-so sales in 1979. In a belated show of support, employees at the now-defunct Madison Avenue Bookshop bought 183 remaindered copies of the novel, and, with help from a Tiffany’s designer, set up a window display that featured a mannequin representing the main character, lying on the floor amid piles of the books. This ur-act of Portis love was written up in several newspapers and led to a 1985 re-issue. (The Times article that Jennings read described these events.)

Despite the intense devotion Portis inspires, he has remained a very shadowy literary figure, serving up only the skimpiest biographical information on dust jackets. He was born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, served in the Marines and fought in Korea, and then worked for two Southern newspapers in the late 1950s and early ’60s. After, he joined The New York Herald Tribune in the early ’60s; he was there alongside other soon-to-be-famous figures like Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, and Lewis Lapham. In 1964, Portis quit a terrific job at the Herald Tribune—he was the paper’s London bureau chief—and went back to Arkansas to try his luck finishing Norwood, banging away in what Wolfe famously called “a fishing shack! In Arkansas!” He published four subsequent novels: True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.

Over the years, Portis has been so protective of his privacy that he has earned a reputation as a first-rank literary recluse. He lives alone in Little Rock, and while he is not quite as elusive as J.D. Salinger was, Portis has developed a comparable air of impermeability. He doesn’t go on book tours and almost never does interviews, declining to speak even to people whose goal is to celebrate him. He wouldn’t talk to veteran journalist Ron Rosenbaum when Rosenbaum was writing his excellent you-must-read-Portis essays for The New York Observer and Esquire in the 1990s, part of a prolonged campaign that led, starting in the late ’90s, to a reissue of Portis’s four non-True Grit novels. Nor would he talk to Charles McGrath for The New York Times, when the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit temporarily put Portis back on the media’s must-get list. There is simply no denying the man’s commitment to being left alone.

But it’s a mistake to think of Portis as a shut-in or a grouch. Several years ago, I wrote him to ask if he had anything in the larder that might be suitable for Outside, where I work. (Not so far-fetched, really. Escape Velocity reprints four long nonfiction pieces that would have fit right in.) He said no, but took the time to write a gentlemanly note in response. As I learned by interviewing several people who’ve met Portis, he’s written many nice notes like that over the years. Jennings got to know Portis by cold-calling him in Little Rock in 1985 and inviting him out for a beer, and the two have met many times for drinks or lunch. He describes Portis as a funny companion who’s glad to talk about some things—football, Marine boot camp, the old days in the newspaper business, current events, and his preference for The Wall Street Journal over The New York Times—but not so much about others: his personal life, his literary influences, and the precise details of his many research-oriented road trips through the American Southwest and deep into Mexico, made possible by the financial and personal freedom he earned with the success of True Grit.

This new collection comes as something of a surprise, and it wouldn’t exist at all without the efforts of two close friends of his in Little Rock: Rod Lorenzen, a former newspaperman who runs the publishing arm of the Butler Center (which put out Escape Velocity); and Jennings, a magazine writer and author. Jennings assembled the goods, though the challenge was finding all the material, and Portis made it clear he wouldn’t be much help. Jennings had been stuffing things into a file folder for years, and by the time the Escape Velocity project got underway, he had most of what he needed, but there were a couple of hurdles. Nobody (including Portis) seemed to have Portis’s play, a three-act work called Delray’s New Moon that was produced in Little Rock in 1996. Jennings found it through an actress who had held on to the script. Portis’s early work for the Arkansas Gazette—a local-color column titled “Our Town”—was available on microfilm in Little Rock libraries, but there were significant gaps in the holdings. Jennings reached out to Eddie Dean, a longtime writer for the Washington City Paper who, he happened to know, was a fellow Portis freak. Dean had been on a self-appointed mission to ferret out the “Our Town” columns on microfilm at the Library of Congress and he shared what he had.

Previously unpublished or under-distributed material from a favorite author is always a joyous event for devotees, especially when it’s the result of literary detective work. But the writings collected here represent something more. Portis is 78 now and probably will not produce another novel. Unless he has a sudden and complete personality reversal, he won’t write a memoir. He’s made it very clear that he doesn’t want anyone writing his biography, so it may be that the most bio we are ever going to get is right here in Escape Velocity.

ESCAPE VELOCITY IS a major Portis event in its own right, though. It includes a lot of Portis’s newspaper reporting at the three papers he worked for in the late ’50s and early ’60s—The Memphis Commercial Appeal (1958), the Arkansas Gazette (1959–60), and the Herald Tribune (1960–64)—along with nonfiction for magazines like The Atlantic and The Oxford American, short stories, a revealing interview he did in 2001 with Roy Reed (a friend and former colleague from the Gazette), Delray’s New Moon, and essays about Portis by fans like Rosenbaum, Roy Blount, Jr., Wells Tower, Ed Park, and Donna Tartt.

The 2001 interview with Reed is especially useful for understanding where the narrative voice in Portis’s novels comes from. Not surprisingly, Portis-the-man sounds a lot like Portis-the-writer: concise, quirky, funny. Here he is on the forlorn spirit of modern newspaper offices: “[T]hey’re pretty sad places. Quiet, lifeless. No big Underwood typewriters clacking away. No milling about, no chatting, no laughing, no smoking. That old loose, collegial air is long gone from the newsrooms.”

The interview also provides a fair amount of biographical detail. Portis lived in a string of small Arkansas towns growing up. Along with two brothers, he had a sister, Alice Kate, who died in 1958. His father, Samuel Palmer Portis, was a school superintendent while his mother, Alice Waddell Portis, did some newspaper writing and wrote poetry. His mother was obviously influential: Portis called her “a good poet with a good ear,” and Portis’s youngest brother, Jonathan, told me that his mother’s example made the idea of writing seemed quite natural in the Portis household. “The earliest sounds I can remember are my mother on her giant Underwood typewriter,” he says.

Portis enrolled at the University of Arkansas after he got out of the Marines in 1955 and started working in 1958, soon after graduation. Colleagues remember him as a lively social presence, a man who “loved to stand at a bar telling good stories and listening to them.” He once broke the arm of a loudmouth from The New York Times who had challenged him to arm-wrestle at Greenwich Village bar. “It was a just a freakish thing,” he insisted. “A weak bone or something.”

A short story called “I Don’t Talk Service No More” (also included in Escape Velocity), shines some light on Portis’s service in Korea, about which little is known. The narrator of the story reflects back on “the Fox Company Raid,” which involved nighttime attacks on Chinese outposts, trench-level fighting aimed at inflicting casualties and taking prisoners. These details are based on a real event called the How Company Raid—a bloody last spasm of fighting that took place just a few days before the war ended. But Escape Velocity offers much more than biography. Portis’s unique voice permeates not just his conversation, but his journalism and the other work collected here.

The special nature of Portis’s prose lies in his ability to create quick, resonant images of everyday life, often threaded with dark humor. Here is Portis’s narrator in The Dog of the South, Ray Midge, describing the tag-along pet of the man who has cuckolded him and driven off in his prized Ford Torino: “He had a chow dog that went everywhere with him ... and now that red beast was making free with his lion feet on my Torino seats.” In Norwood, the story of a likable, naïve ex-Marine who travels from Texas to New York to recover $70 he loaned to a service buddy, the omniscient narrator describes Norwood’s first trip on a New York City subway with a perfect blend of sensory detail and withheld information. “The subway was cleaner and more brightly lighted than Norwood had expected, and it moved faster,” Portis writes. “He jostled his way forward to the front car and looked through the glass with his hands cupped around his face. He was disappointed to find the tunnel so roomy. Only a very fat man could be trapped in it with a train coming. The air smelled of electricity and dirt.”

You can see this sly humor and lyrical flourish being born in Escape Velocity, particularly in a four-parter Portis wrote for the Herald Tribune in 1962 about a stop-smoking clinic put on by Seventh-day Adventists at a medical center in Yonkers, New York. This is his lead sentence for installment three: “Another day of lethargy in this bee-loud glade, trying to kick the smoking habit.” In a similar vein, in 1960, he covered the trial of a 26-year-old longshoreman who was fighting “a spirited but losing battle … for the right to keep a pet lion at his home.” A New Jersey zookeeper named Bob Dietc testified that he had worked with the 125-pound lion and was sure the creature would do no harm. “He’s only a baby, you could put him in your vest pocket,” Dietc said. “Asked if it wasn’t true that the animal was unpredictable,” Portis wrote, “Mr. Dietc said, ‘It’s my opinion that all animals are unpredictable, from chickens to birds.’”

Even when he briefly served as a southern-based civil rights reporter for the Herald Tribune, a flash of the future Portis sneaks in. One notable piece from that era, called “How the Night Exploded into Terror,” is a dense, lengthy report on violent riots that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 11 and 12, 1963. Before all hell broke loose, Portis had attended an outdoor Ku Klux Klan rally in a nearby town, where Klansmen burned a pair of 25-foot-tall crosses. “On hand were 200 hooded men, including the imperial wizard himself and a couple grand dragons and about 900 Klan supporters in mufti,” Portis wrote. “There were a lot of bugs in the air, too, knocking their brains out against the crosses and falling into open collars.”

Escape Velocity also contains “Combinations of Jacksons,” a memoir about Portis’s childhood that he wrote for The Atlantic in 1999. There’s not much straight biography in it, of course, but you do learn that Portis, as a kid growing up during World War II, spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to hide underwater in a stream, breathing through a reed like the soldiers he saw in movies. “Agents of the Axis Powers were never far behind me,” he writes. “I could slow them a little with pinecone grenades, but I couldn’t stop them. They came crashing through the woods firing their Lugers at me as I raced barefooted for the reed beds of Beech Creek, a last hope.”

My favorite offerings in Escape Velocity, though, are the four long non-fiction stories grouped under the heading “Travels”: a Baja adventure from 1967, which shows Portis in full voice and at times reads like a first draft of The Dog of the South; a story that takes place on the Ouachita River, which combines Portis’s interest in archival research (the river’s history, the explorations of Hernando de Soto) with his impeccable description; a piece about country music published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1966; and “Motel Life, Lower Reaches,” an engaging curiosity that appeared in The Oxford American in 2003.

The back-story for “Motel Life” illustrates the joy that Escape Velocity will probably prompt among Portis fans. Like others before him, Marc Smirnoff, the editor of The Oxford American, contacted Portis by letter and phone, in hopes of arranging a meeting. Portis not only agreed to show Smirnoff an unpublished piece but actually came by The Oxford American’s offices. They went to a bar. Smirnoff was in awe, but his curiosity kicked in. “I said, ‘Mr. Portis, I know you hate this question, but I’ve got to ask: Would you please tell me who some of your literary influences are?’” Portis started ticking off names, none familiar to Smirnoff. Later, he realized that Portis might have made them up “to see if I would start nodding my head like I knew who they were. I don’t remember if I did, but I probably did.”

The manuscript that Portis gave Smirnoff was a series of vignettes about cheap motels that Portis had stayed in during his various rambles. It’s hard to tell if the tales are truth, fiction, or both. The narrator puts himself in situations that all but guarantee uncomfortable interaction. At one low-rent motor lodge in southern New Mexico, word gets around that Portis owns a pair of heavy-duty, all-copper jumper cables. In short order, misfits with a weak commitment to proper car maintenance are knocking on his door. “I came to know celebrity,” he writes, “two onerous weeks of it, as ‘that guy in number twelve with the great jumper cables.’”

What did Smirnoff think the story was—fiction or reality? “I don’t know what it was,” he says. “I was slipped an unpublished story by Charles Portis in a bar on President Clinton Avenue in Little Rock, Arkansas,” he says. “That was the most action-filled moment of my career.”

Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine and the author of The Eyes of Willie McGee. Follow: @AlexHeard