Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Narrators: "True Grit" by Charles Portis

Recently I read Charles Portis True Grit. It is a classic that, to me (at least), lived up to all the hype. Though I haven't seen the John Wayne movie yet, I'm looking forward to watching both it and the upcoming Coen Brothers adaptation.

I found the most enchanting aspect of the book to be the voice of the narrator, 14-year-old Mattie Ross who has as much vengeful pride as Mike Hammer. She leaves home in search of her father’s killer and enlists U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn in her quest. Her unnatural naturalness for storytelling makes her a perfect narrator. By that I mean her enthusiasm for narrative sometimes gets the better of her. She tells the story not like a professional novelist, but like someone who was actually there (which she was). Her digressions and personal opinions sometimes distract her from the plot, but these are moments to be treasured.

A seemingly simple observation such as, “It had a good roof” (from the first page), becomes magical through Mattie’s voice. Mostly because other writers would forget to include a detail like this. Then there is her disapproval of Rooster’s accounting, her haggling with businessmen (and winning!), and her play-by-play commentary on the search. She’s a bright young woman, more so than Rooster wants to admit at first, but even by the end he is charmed by her perseverance, intelligence, and bravery.

Another aspect of the narration I really liked was how there were these brief moments when the adult Mattie would shine through. Chance references to something happening later in life. Not enough to let you know where she is when she is writing the book, or what has happened in her life since the story happened, but just enough to let you know that her wonderful 14-year-old soul never disappeared.

Here is the first paragraph of the book, which roped me in when I read it in a bookstore while visiting Boston:

“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 blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say 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.”

Mattie Ross is now one of my favorite narrators. Who are yours?

7 comments:

  1. I agree with you. TRUE GRIT is more than a great Western, it is also a great American novel. Shades of Mattie's narration reminded me of an older female version of little Bob Starrett in SHANE.

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  2. That first paragraph is well polished and makes me want to read the book, too. It reminds me of the young narrator of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which is also told from the distance of years. It starts out: "When he was thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

    First person narrative is hard to do well, in my opinion, because it's rare for a character in a story to also be a good storyteller. I find them usually self-indugent and rambling.

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  3. I'd have to give some thought to other narrators I like, but you nailed it on TRUE GRIT. I loved it for many of the same reasons you did. The John Wayne movie didn't do a lot for me, but I'm stoked to see the Coen Brothers take on it.

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  4. I have never read TRUE GRIT, but your review tells me I need to track down a copy. Re other books with a captivating, unique first person voice, I suggest CRISS CROSS by Don Tracy. It is both an interesting crime story and a strong self-portrait of a man, via the first person narrative.

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  5. This is a great book, all right. And if you like Mattie's voice, you should try another Portis book or two and check out his versatility. I've read all his novels, and they're all different, all unique.

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  6. I liked this book a lot myself. I should probably reread since it has been so long

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  7. August -- Good connection on Shane! I didn't think of it, but you are totally right.

    Ron -- Another smart comparison with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I remember really liking that book the last time I read it, and I've been meaning to re-read it for years.

    Chris -- I've heard others say similar things about the John Wayne version, but I'd still like to check it out. I enjoyed the sequel with Katherine Hepburn, "Rooster Cogburn."

    Frank -= Another book I've never heard of! I will be tracking down Criss Cross soon, as you seem to know the type of books that I like.

    Bill -- Glad to hear that about Portis' other books. I'll be sure to write about them as I read them.

    Charles -- Ah, the luxury of re-reading. I rarely have time to do it myself, but I've been thinking about trying to incorporate it more in my reading schedule.

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