I read somewhere that we cotton to cowboy stories because of the simplicity of their “thematic execution.” The bad guys all wear black hats. Vengeance is best served from the barrel of a Colt. Men are strong, women are subordinate, and love it. Those savages want our white chicks in the worst way possible.
I've watched a lot of Westerns. My grandmother was a big John Wayne fan and, as part of the every-Sunday pilgrimages we made to her house, we'd invariably watch The Duke shoot the hell out of someone. Gram also liked Bonanza because she had a yen for Lorne Greene (no relation); I preferred The Big Valley, because the guy from The Six-Million Dollar Man was on it, and The Rifleman, because the main character seemed like he had a brain and gave good advice to his son.
“A man doesn't run from a fight, Mark...but that doesn't mean you should go running 'to' one, either.” (The Rifleman, 1958)
I've read a fair number of Westerns, too, from the many works of Louis L'Amour to Larry McMurty to Cormac McCarthy to Elmore Leonard's short stories to Robert B. Parker's recent genre forays.
In the eight or nine years I dressed up to go trick or treating, I was The Lone Ranger at least five times. When I was 10 years old, I made business cards like the ones Paladin carried in Have Gun Will Travel. It would be fair to say many of my heroes, or at least my influences, have been cowboys. Charles Portis' True Grit did not change that. It's further evidence that good Westerns may be plain spoken, but they're seldom simple.
I picked up True Grit this month because of its protagonist, Mattie Ross. She's 14 (about the same age as my protagonists), shrewed, uncowable and she doesn't suffer fools lightly. She's an engaging character and Portis captures her well, albeit filtered through some 50 years of her memory and curmudgeonly life. In his early days, Portis was a writer for Northwest Arkansas Times. He's said the work he did there, revising stories sent in from “lady stringers” of the Ozarks, helped him capture Mattie's voice and manner.
“If you want anything done right you will have to see to it yourself every time. I don't know to this day why they let a wool-hatted crank like Owen Hardy preach the service. Knowing the Gospel and preaching it are two different things. A Baptist or even a Cambellite would have been better than him. If I had been home I would never have permitted it but I could not be in two places at once.” (True Grit, page 74)
Mattie may well be the most self-possessed and competent 14-year-old ever written. She takes charge after her father is gunned down, sends his body and possessions back to her family, takes care of his finances, and then hires a U.S. marshal to go after his killer. Hard to believe? Looking at the 14-year-olds I know, yes, but Portis makes it work. I think he does it by not making a big deal of what she can do, but by occasionally reminding his readers of what she can't.
“I pointed the revolver at his belly and shot him down. The explosion kicked me backwards and caused me o lose my footing and the pistol jumped from my hand. I lost no time in recovering it and getting to my feet … He made a quick move for a chunk of wood and I pulled the trigger and the hammer snapped on a bad chamber. I made haste to try another chamber but the hammer snapped dead again. I had not time for a third try. Chaney flung the heavy piece of wood and it caught me in the chest and laid me out backwards.” (True Grit, page 172.)
Scenes like these prevent the book from being a comic tale about a spunky girl manipulating dumb cowboys to do her will. They show that, as competent as she is, Mattie is still just a kid and in way over her head. It makes the story that much more effective. Mattie is in real danger in this scene, as she is toward the end of the book when she falls into a rattlesnake pit. Cogburn saves her at this point, because he has grit and because he sees her as a surrogate daughter. I don't blame him; it's hard not to fall for Mattie Ross, even knowing you'd never be able to keep up with her.
Portis doesn't short his other characters, either. Nearly all of them have a presence that you want to hit, love or drink with. Everyone from Cogburn to outlaw Ned Pepper have understandable motivations for being what and who they are. Even the villain Tom Chaney shows some depth.
'I regret that shooting,' said he [speaking of Mattie's father]. 'Mr. Ross was decent to me but he ought not to have meddled in my business. I was drinking and I was mad through and through. Nothing has gone right for me.” (True Grit, page 172)
Another thing Portis does well is create atmosphere. In reading True Grit, you can almost feel the dust in your throat and smell the sweat from the ponies. Portis pulls a trick, though, by not achieving this effect through environmental details. He does it through character, showing the environment by how his characters react to it. He sets the tone of True Grit early, sending Mattie to a hanging.
“He was in tears and I am not ashamed to own that I was too. The man Maledon covered his head with the hood and went to his lever. Yarnell but a hand over my face but I pushed it aside. I would see it all. With no more ado Maledon sprung the trap and the hinged doors fell open in the middle and the three killers dropped to judgment with a bang. A noise went up from the crowd as though they had been struck a blow.” (True Grit, page 20)
In that one paragraph, Portis shows his readers what kind of world they're in. He shows Mattie's refusal to be protected from reality, as well as the adult urge to preserve innocence. Portis' crowd does not react with savage glee but from a blow, perhaps to its collective soul; this world may be occasionally funny but it wasn't created for fun.
I have yet to see the new movie, opting to write this critique with nothing but the text (and the John Wayne film) in mind. If it's true that the new film draws more heavily on the book than it's predecessor, I'm in for a treat.