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The Joys of Charles Portis 3 min read
Charles Portis

The Joys of Charles Portis

The sweet Southern speech of Charles Portis is not to be missed.

By Cary Littlejohn

I’d set out to write this morning about Charles Portis. Mostly because I’d been meaning to anyway. But also because of his connection with the wonderful Robert Gottlieb, who passed away last week and was the editor on four of five of Portis’s books.

Father’s Week
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The Library of America recently — I don’t know if “honored” is the right word, but it feels like it is — honored Portis’s legacy by issuing his collected works under its banner.

The Oxford American, that beautiful literary magazine of Southern writing now based in Portis’s beloved Arkansas, sent emails about the new collection and circulated its own remembrance of the great author, who died in 2020.

I’d been thinking about Portis myself because on a recent trip from Tennessee back to Missouri, I listened to the audiobook of The Dog of the South. It was long overdue, and my goodness, did it ever deliver.

I was caught not just by the prose, which is impeccable in a charming mixture of the high-brow and the low. The dialogue especially, which was courtly and old-fashioned and mannered in the ways of the Old South but also trafficked in unpretentious subject matter that somehow just wouldn’t have seemed quite right if rendered in Faulknerian tones. It was the perfect middle. Smarter and more surprising and by far funnier than a person would ever expect when they began.

But I was also caught by the narrator’s voice. I didn’t know the narrator (turned out to be David Aaron Baker, who read the audiobooks some other Portis novels as well), and I have no idea if he had any connection to, or affinity for, Portis, but as I drove along, listening and laughing aloud, I convinced myself that this was Portis. Or this was Portis’s character, who was a stand-in for Portis himself. Either way, the voice just sounded right to me. It was a perfect combination of material and performance.

But instead of simply sharing what the Oxford American had recirculated, I ended up spending the morning reading a remembrance of the man from another great Southern writer, Donna Tartt (h/t to Austin Kleon, a devoted Portis-head, for having written on his blog about this New York Times piece when it was more timely).

Donna Tartt on the Singular Voice, and Pungent Humor, of Charles Portis (Published 2020)
Portis, who died in February, occupied a unique place in American letters. His novels, written in the vernacular of his native Arkansas, beg to be read aloud.

She begins her piece thusly:

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.

It’s just full of so much beautiful writing in its own right (because Donna freakin’ Tartt, duh) but more than that, it takes a very few instances of communication and paints a picture of the man. Coupled with his words that live on in his books, it felt like you knew this man from just reading him, as if what he put on the page was truly a sliver of himself left for countless readers to take in and feel like they had, just almost, had a conversation with him.

Immediately upon finishing her remembrance, I loaded up the Donna Tartt-narrated audiobook of True Grit, looking for more of what I'd found in this article.