"True Grit" before the Duke: A Look at Charles Portis’s 1968 Novel

Being a devoted Coen brothers fan is easy. I’ve been enjoying their work since Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. However, I greeted the news that the next project would be a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film True Grit with a momentary sense of dismay and disapproval. Why would the Coens waste time remaking a god-awful John Wayne movie and, moreover, ruin my present hoarding by releasing it around my favorite commercial holiday? Was Christmas going to be this bad? Now, I know the original is revered as a classic and the Duke won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. But I consider that award to be of the “lifetime achievement” variety, as the Duke’s version of Rooster Cogburn is simply John Wayne with an eye-patch. John Wayne’s acting has all the appeal of a middle-aged employee at Wal-mart bragging about his “swagger years.” However, while the studio is no doubt hustling for those sweet, sweet remake nostalgia dollars, the Coens have, in fact, based their True Grit on the source material, the Charles Portis novel of the same name.

As it turns out, Portis is a hell of a writer. He is one of these subversive mid-twentieth century authors whose work has fallen out of print for years, only to be occasionally dusted off and rediscovered by hungry young fans — fans who used to think great books in the Sixties began and ended with Catch 22. The narrator, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, sets off in the post-Civil War west to find her father’s murderer. She hires the meanest federal marshal available, Rooster Cogburn, a man of “true grit.” And, while Mattie spends a bulk of the novel pointing out this “grit” in Cogburn, the title isn’t about the marshal at all. The federal agent Cogburn, the Texas Ranger LeBeouf, and the outlaw they seek, are merely pieces of a story surrounding the wholly unique and sometimes hilarious Mattie Ross. In many ways, she inherits a mantle of truth and clarity unencumbered by prejudices of experience only seen before in that of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Mattie’s narration is stilted and formal as it is unsentimental. Truths pass through Mattie unfiltered, and while we can “never know what is in man’s heart,” we can rest assure that “there is nothing free except the grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.” The sprat’s tough courage (and tough love) is the characteristically American romantic, underscored by her absolute lack of romantic notions (she dismisses a morose depiction of Shakespeare’s Ophelia with a humorous “she must have been silly”). The plot is tightly constructed; its exhilarating moments echo Mattie’s own misadventures. While she and cohorts descend upon her father’s killer, there is a reevaluation of morality codes. By reevaluation, I mean lack of; the black and white of good and evil that plagues many westerns isn’t here. Marshall Cogburn is an admitted thief and war criminal and Mattie’s pure notions of justice are clearly at odds with her obsession with revenge. Her own motives of justice are offset by the political and financial motivations of Cogburn and LeBeouf. The “larger issues” brought into play, particularly by the Texan Lebeouf, periodically trample Mattie’s universal goals of justice. Those interested in current political discourse will be fascinated by Mattie’s own ruminations on political parties of the day, “Thad Stevens and the Republican gang would have starved us all out if they could.” If the Mattie isn’t enough to entice a read, the banter between Cogburn and LaBeouf is just enough to bristle your arm hair and yet keep one amused, lest “you will push that saucy line too far.”

It’s worth mentioning that True Grit was published in 1968, when the lines between culture and counterculture began to blur. The novel certainly is a product of that time. It subverts the western prototype of the previous two decades; the protagonist is a young female child and is wiser, tougher, and more honest than the surrounding men. In some ways, Rooster Cogburn is an iconic western hero. I nearly leapt out of my chair as he charged bank robbers, guns in hand, shouting, “fill your hands you son of a bitch!” However, despite such “western heroic” qualities, Rooster is a compromised figure. He served on the losing side of the civil war, engaged in several robberies, and was saved from imprisonment only by the intervention of a close comrade. There is a cynicism to the novel, as Cogburn and LeBeouf attempt to eliminate Mattie from the excursion, particularly once it is made clear the outlaw (Tom Chaney) is worth a great deal of money. This cynicism is offset by Mattie’s moral clarity and fortitude. It is in Mattie that Portis undermines the genre; Mattie possesses as much Edwardian “inner light” as Huck Finn or Natty Bumppo (Last of the Mohicans). These early iconic American characters were defined by the rejection of old world European morals. In much the same way, Mattie serves as a rejection of decaying American values in a post-civil war landscape.Why are the Coens doing another western? Are they piggybacking off the success of No Country for Old Men?  A cursory study of their history allows for some speculation. They often jump from genre to genre, and have danced between mainstream appeal and esoteric Indy creed. The massively popular Fargo was followed by a bizarre film called The Big Lebowski, which was initially considered a failure. Critics and audiences didn’t get the odd tribute to Raymond Chandler. The popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Homer’s Ulysses re-told) came before the slow and contemplative The Man Who Wasn’t There, a black and white study of malaise in the 1950s. In this sense, True Grit fits right in. As a genre tale, Portis is unconventional in employing a female protagonist and narrator, just as much as finding a burned out hippie in the middle of a Raymond Chandler detective tale is unsuspected. The Coens love genre tales, but loathe convention. Portis’s novel seems a perfect fit. We shall see. Whether the Coens can offer up a good re-make this December is no longer issue. I am only glad to have found an underappreciated gem in True Grit. Forget about John Wayne or Jeff Bridges, and let Charles Portis introduce you to Mattie, Rooster, and LaBeouf. He’s earned his props.

Four stars, and not five, because I am still a literary snob.

Amy Heishman