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(When Rooster, in his cups, offers sick Mattie a spoonful of booze, she intones, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains”).
But Mattie also re-creates, poignantly and despite herself, her stark discovery of a world gone suddenly wrong, and what had to be done to set it right.
Blood literally stains the book’s first and last sentences, and Rooster, though admirable in his tenacity and his paternal protectiveness of Mattie, has a half-hidden history of trigger-happy law enforcement and less defensible acts of carnage.
Indeed, the Overlook reprint provides a necessary corrective for latter-day Portis enthusiasts, a prism for the acts of violence in his other books: the cathartic fistfight punctuating ’ startlingly gory if swift climax.
(Even Ray Midge, the ever-observant milquetoast who tells his story in 1979’s stints on comedy—in one of the funniest set pieces to be found in all of Portisland, Rooster, La Boeuf, and a Choctaw policeman suddenly break into an escalating marksmanship contest, pitching corn dodgers two at a time and trying to hit both, eventually depleting a third of their rations.
Mattie’s precocious capacity for hard-bargain-driving (selling back ponies to the beleaguered livestock trader Stonehill) is revealed in expertly structured repartee, and her rock-ribbed responses to distasteful situations amuse with their catechism cadences.
These journalists work pretty fast, and the slim picaresque appeared in 1966, to favorable notice.
Portis’s signature drollery and itinerant protagonist (Norwood Pratt, auto mechanic and aspiring country singer, ranges from Ralph, Texas, to New York City and back, initially to recover seventy dollars loaned to a service buddy) are already in place.“Also the Volstead Act.” Mattie never minces words or judgments—she’s not from Yell County for nothing—and the poles of wrong and right are firmly fixed.Unlike Huck Finn, to whose narrative hers is sometimes compared, Mattie knows the Bible back to front, handily settling spiritual debates by citing chapter and verse.In 1964, in the midst of so-called Swinging London, Charles Mc Coll Portis had Karl Marx’s old job.Portis (who turns seventy this year) was thirty at the time, not yet a novelist, just a newspaperman seemingly blessed by that guild’s gods.When the sacs are filled, they coat these facts with a kind of nacreous glaze and exchange them for bits of yellow wax manufactured by the smaller and slower “wax ants.” The journalist ants burrow extensive tunnels and galleries beneath Burmese villages, and the villagers, reclining at night on their straw mats, can often hear a steady hum from the earth.This hum is believed to be the ants sifting fine particles of information with their feelers in the dark.Don’t tell me to go to the library, because I’ve already been there. Your teacher may be thinking of the “journalist ants” of central Burma.These bright-red insects grow to a maximum length of one-quarter inch, and they are tireless workers, scurrying about on the forest floor and gathering tiny facts, which they store in their abdominal sacs.(The latter novel’s narrator, Jimmy Burns, is also a Korean War vet, and Norwood reveals to Rita Lee that he killed two men “that I know of” in that conflict.) Portis’s current reputation as a keen comedian of human quirks, though well-deserved, is limiting.Put another way: After cars, Portis is most familiar with the classification and care of guns.