by Charles Portis
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I'm in an ideal position to review the novel “True Grit”. I'm a fan of the western genre but have somehow never managed to see the 1969 cinematic adaptation starring John Wayne. I'm desperate to see the new Coen brothers remake starring Jeff “the dude” Bridges, but having missed it at my local cinema, I'll have to wait until it is released on DVD. Free from the influence of either of these well-regarded adaptations, I was able to approach Charles Portis' 1968 novel without any preconceived ideas of how the narrative would play out.
I'd like to start by saying that this short novel kicks ass. Not a clean-shaven, well-mannered kind of fisticuffs but a tobacco-chewing, one-eyed, gnarly old grizzly bear style ass-kicking. It simultaneously satirises and pays homage to the clichés of the “Wild West” and is both witty, poignant and powerful. No mean feat for a book a little over 200 pages.
Narrated by the young protagonist, Mattie Ross, the novel tells the story of her father's murder and her search for his killer. The fourteen year old girl enlists the help of a gruff, alcoholic Marshall named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn and they set off into Indian territory in search of the outlaw and bloody vengeance. Young Mattie is a fantastically contradictory character. The product of a Presbyterian upbringing, she is prim and proper and prone to quoting scripture to make her point. In contrast to this very civilised side of her personality, she is single-minded in her quest for justice to the point of ruthlessness. She is manipulative and unshakeable in her convictions and displays a sense of confidence and independence that is both amusing and terrifying.
Mirroring the driven young Mattie is Rooster. Old, uncouth and unkempt, he is initially reluctant to help the girl but accepts the job because she pays well. Functionally illiterate and with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later, Rooster seems Mattie's polar opposite but as the novel progresses we see that both characters share the same unwavering belief in justice. Whilst Mattie hires Cogburn after hearing of the man's “grit”, by the end of the tale we see that Mattie too possesses that “true grit” that defines courage in the face of danger. They are accompanied on their dangerous journey by LaBoeuf, an arrogant Texas Ranger whose professionalism highlights Rooster's own shortcomings. The shifting relationships between the three main protagonists is one of the novel's strongest points and Portis is able to make us sympathise with all three even whilst each character's flaws is laid bare for all to see.
The novel is narrated by Mattie in her old age and Portis is able to use this narrative framing to heap on yet more characterisation. As we read, we learn that Mattie lost none of her forthrightness as she grew older and that she never married. Her direct and somewhat mercenary attitude has shaped her into a formidable businesswoman and whilst she reveals that she is wealthy, one gets the impression that the woman has never known true happiness. Though strong-willed and fiercely independent, Mattie is still a woman in a man's world and no amount of straight-talking can change that fact.
Rooster himself is a product of a bygone era. A veteran of the Civil War, his ways are considered outdated at the time the main story occurs. By the end of Mattie's recollections, we learn he is riding in a Wild West show, eking out a living doing the only things he knows, shooting guns and riding horses. It seems that whilst a man of Rooster's calibre (pun very much intended) can exist in the tough-talking, straight-shooting, rough and tumble America of the 1870s, he seems obsolete in the more refined America of the early twentieth century.
This isn't to say that “True Grit” is not a funny book. Charles Portis manages to cram a surprising amount of humour into the story. The dialogue between the leading characters is both believable and laugh-out-loud funny. Mattie's own narration is similarly hilarious, her rigid nature preventing the kind of self-awareness that might make a normal teenage girl stop and think about the consequences of her actions. Mattie's disgust at Rooster's slovenliness and drinking provides yet more laughs but also serves to highlight just what a mismatched duo the two really are.
This is a well-written, accessible and very enjoyable adventure story. Fans of westerns should seek it out at the first opportunity. Even those who aren't so keen on the genre will find plenty to admire in this modern classic. I can't recommend it enough.
Hereward L.M. Proops