Taking a break from Ivy and Rose and all those lady novelists I seem irresistibly drawn to, I've been reading Charles Portis's True Grit, a novel by a man - and what's more, one that might be classified as a 'western'. It's a tricky book to write about, as I suspect it's one those modern classics that's widely read in America but little read over here (like William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow). Most people on this side of the Atlantic think of True Grit as a John Wayne movie, and latterly a Coen Brothers' movie, and few have so much as heard of Charles Portis, even though he wrote one of the funniest books of the 20th century, Masters Of Atlantis. Anyway, True Grit - the story of a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, avenging her father's murder, with the help of one-eyed marshal 'Rooster' Cogburn - I found an absolute joy to read. Here's how it starts:
'People do not give it credence that a 14-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 it did not happen every day. I was just 14 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.
Here is what happened...'
What can you do but read on? As always with Portis, it's all in the voice - and Mattie's voice is utterly distinctive and unforgettable. She is telling the story perhaps some 40 years after it happened, but she is still the same person - a forthright Presbyterian with very clear views of right and wrong, a dauntless spirit and sharp wits, and little sense of humour. And yet her story is engaging and funny, despite taking in an awful lot of violent death and injury - all of which is dealt with in a brisk, spunky, matter-of-fact manner. Mattie's voice, and that of the dialogue passages, is vivid, precise, formal and beautifully phrased - perfectly of its time and place (Arkansas in the 1870s or thereabout). And because the language is so exactly right, True Grit can ditch the baggage that weighs down many a less completely imagined period novel - making for a short (200-odd pages) and hugely readable book.
The language is of course the language of Bible readers - and Mattie is not above giving chapter and verse. She also has an endearing habit of putting any vaguely slangy word or expression in inverted commas: 'thugs', 'booty', 'stunts', 'the land of Nod'. She uses the characteristic locution, 'My thought was' - as in 'My thought was: What on earth!' The exclamations too are characteristic: 'It was not to be!', 'Thank goodness for that!', 'You bet he was a game pony!'
Rooster Cogburn has his distinct voice too, but he is mostly a man of few words. When he does let himself go, with a drink-fuelled account of his early career, he sounds at times almost like the immortal Dr Reo Symes in The Dog of the South, but it doesn't last long, and Mattie remains firmly in charge of the story.
I guess Mattie Ross is a heroine in the mould of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. True Grit is every bit as enjoyable as their stories - and, I think, every bit as classic. If you haven't read it, you're missing a treat.