I gushed a little hard over McCarthy’s The Road and I’m a fervent fan of No Country for Old Men, but Charles Portis has one thing McCarthy will never have: a sense of humor.
Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny. — Roy Blount, Jr.
I don’t have much to add beyond Blount’s summation. The Coen Brothers recently adapted this book to film and the first half is so faithful that, if you’ve seen the movie, the book reads like a script. Fortunately, the second half is different enough that it doesn’t feel wholly redundant. This deja vu is the price you pay if you read a great book after watching a faithful adaptation.
The book follows Mattie Ross on her quest to avenge her father’s death. In her words (first-person narration):
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say that it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. (11)
She enlists the help of a U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to help her find and capture Tom Chaney. Not to emphasize the film over the book, but Jeff Bridges is perfectly cast as Rooster. I’d probably have imagined him in my mind’s eye even if I hadn’t seen the film. As I read, I could hear him deliver the lines which added immensely to my enjoyment of the book. Rooster is gruff, boozey, and strangely magnetic. He’s an effective U.S. Marshal, but isn’t opposed to bending a few corners. Such as in this discussion with Mattie, when he accounts for his lifetime supply of whiskey:
After a time I said, “I don’t see how you can play cards and drink whiskey and think about this detective business all at the same time.”
He said, “If I am going up against Ned Pepper I will need a hundred dollars. I have figured out that much. I will want fifty dollars in advance.”
“You are trying to take advantage of me.”
“I am giving you my children’s rate,” he said. “It will not be a easy job of work, smoking Ned out. He will be holed up down there in the hills in the Choctaw Nation. There will be expenses.”
“I hope you don’t think I am going to keep you in whiskey.”
“I don’t have to buy that, I confiscate it.” (63)
Mattie’s narration is matter-of-fact, and rife with dry wit. Her precision contrasts well with Rooster’s sloppy style and I love her capability and independence. The end is fitting (not the epilogue—those are almost never good) and if you don’t want to know what it is, then don’t read the book reviews in the first few pages. Every edition is probably a bit different in this regard, but mine included a thick paragraph that summarized the climax. Come on!
I really enjoyed Portis’ writing style, but as I’ve only read one of his books, I don’t know if I like his writing or only Mattie’s voice. I wonder if he writes differently when he steps away from her sparse, businesslike tone. She doesn’t waste words and I like plots that get straight to the point without trying to misdirect or be too clever. (Clever writing is good; I don’t like when an author will try to show off, strain to be unique, and lose control of the story.)
Translation: If you haven’t seen the film, then you should move this book to the top of your queue. If you’ve seen the film, you don’t have to rush since you’ve already heard the best bits of dialog, but you should still get around to it. Biggest surprise: the funniest parts of the film weren’t from the Coens–they were from Portis!