Sunday, February 13, 2011

True Grit

PORTIS, CHARLES. True Grit. New York: Overlook Press, 2004. ISBN: 978-1-59020-459-7. Pp. 235. $14.95.

I have a confession to make. Having had no intention of reading Charles Portis's novel, I felt myself free to see the new Coen brothers' movie back in December. I thought it was great, one of their best. I left the theater feeling satisfied and that was that. Then, last week, I learned that True Grit the novel had found itself at the top of the bestseller list. Of course when I read it, I heard the Dude's thick drawl and laughed at Matt Damon's short stature. The movie proved to be so closely bound to the book that I couldn't read the one without picturing the other. My objectivity as a reviewer is flawed. But at least you know. 

There's a reason True Grit has been adapted into a movie twice, I think. If it hadn't, I doubt it would still be in print today. It's strength is in the dialogue, of which there is a lot, but the prose is terribly dry, allowing a director ample freedom to make a film that is both genuinely true to the text while producing a work entirely apart from the original. When I think of the liberties the Coen brothers took, I don't feel that they betrayed the story. On the contrary, I think they improved it. As a result, the film has left an impression far more lasting than the book.

Still, True Grit the novel isn't all bad. The narrative voice is that of a grown-up Mattie, now a lady journalist; the book, a autobiographical piece she is writing for publication, recounting her experience as a fourteen-year-old girl in pursuit of the man, Tom Chaney, who killed her father. As an adult, she is a less-than-perfect woman, a woman whose only interests, we learn, are the Bible and money, and her utter lack of interest in others (other than the now-dead Rooster Cogburn and the long-gone Texan LaBoeuf) proves to be almost comical. The novel begins with the statement, "People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl would leave home and go off into the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day". Despite what our narrator tells us, the better part of the novel involves Cogburn and LaBoeuf trying to get rid of her, so convinced are they that she will be a burden on their hunt for her father's killer. Consistent with this initial attitude, the rest of the story is treated as something unexceptional, even at its climax.

Neither the woman nor the child seem to know their own limits, yet the loss of an arm at the end of the narrative does not leave Mattie remorseful for having accomplished what she has. Her shooting Tom Chaney directly led to her lost limb, but of this not a word is written. Mattie is not a soul-searcher, probably deliberately so, and what is most poignant (or cynical) about Portis's novel is the loneliness and bitterness that adult Mattie grows into. The days she spent with Cogburn and LaBoeuf were significant to her as a child, perhaps the most significant of her life. We realize this after she has Cogburn's body disinterred and transferred to her family's plot, despite not having seen him since she was a girl, more than twenty years prior. Tom Chaney may have paid the price for killing Mattie's father, but her triumph came at a price as well. Portis aptly leaves it up to the reader as to whether or not it was worth it.

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