CHARLES PORTIS: COLLECTED WORKS
Edited by Jay Jennings
In 1964 Charles Portis left a promising career as a newspaper reporter in New York and London to return to his native Arkansas. There, working in relative obscurity, he would write the books that led critic Ron Rosenbaum to call him the “least-known great writer” in America. In five novels published over twenty-five years, Portis refined a signature deadpan style in plots full of picaresque adventure, unforgettable characters, and rich humor. This definitive Library of America collection brings together all the novels, including the classic Western True Grit, along with Portis’s complete stories and a generous selection of his journalism and essays.
In Norwood (1966) a mechanic from Texas sets out on a madcap journey to New York City to get back $70 owed to him from an Army buddy. The portraits of the offbeat America he encounters along the way, peopled by misfits and oddballs, are enthralling from the book’s opening sentence. True Grit (1968) tells the story of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s quest from her home in Yell County, Arkansas, into the rugged landscapes of the Choctaw Nation of the 1870s to avenge her father’s death at the hands of the no-good coward Tom Chaney. Often compared to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novel has twice been adapted for film and is now recognized as an American masterpiece.
A book that Roy Blount Jr. said “no one should die without having read,” The Dog of the South (1979) is a third saga of pursuit, this time to Central America. Ray Midge is on the road looking for the man who has run off with his wife, his credit cards, and, most painfully, his beloved Ford Torino. Masters of Atlantis (1985) conjures the fictional cult of Gnomonism and takes an uproarious plunge into the dark heart of conspiratorial thinking and religious scandal. Gringos (1991) follows an expatriate former Marine in his search to find a UFO hunter gone missing in the Yucatan, with a wonderfully Portisian supporting cast of archaeologists, drug-addled hippie millenarians, and the son of the “bravest dog in all Mexico.”
A generous gathering of nonfiction reveals Portis’s descriptive power as a reporter, particularly in his coverage of the civil rights movement; his appreciation of Arkansas history and landscape in “The Forgotten River”; and his skills as a family memoirist, on display in his recollection “Combinations of Jacksons.”
Jay Jennings, editor, is the author of Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City. He was formerly an editor at the Oxford American, a writer for Sports Illustrated, and features editor at Tennis magazine. A native of Little Rock and a longtime friend of Portis, he is the editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany and the coauthor (with Graham Gordy) of a film adaptation of Portis’s novel The Dog of the South.