Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Review: True Grit by Charles Portis (1968)

True Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ranked #3 on my Top 10 Reads in 2012

"True Grit is the best novel to come my way in a very long time...One of those rare sweet can recommend it to inveterate fiction readers and to those who read only one or two novels a year." - taken from the back of the book.

Blurb: True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, who sets out in the winter of eighteen seventy-something to avenge the murder of her father.
Since not even Mattie (who is no self-doubter) would ride into Indian Territory alone, she "convinces" one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along with her. As Mattie outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path, as her performance under fire makes them eat their words, her indestructible vitality and harsh innocence by turns amuse, horrify, and touch the reader. What happens-to Mattie, to the gang of outlaws unfortunate enough to tangle with her-rings with the dramatic rightness of legend and the marvelous overtones, the continual surprises, of personality. True Grit is eccentric, cool, straight, and unflinching, like Mattie herself, who tells the story a half-century later in a voice that sounds strong and sure enough to outlast us all.

Thoughts: Quite recently I've had a thing for alternative western stories. Even going so far as to write a chapter of my DVD guide about the genre. I quite enjoyed Three-Ten to Yuma and Other Stories and was a little disappointed by the recent award winning The Sisters Brothers but it was the startling The Hawkline Monster that impressed me the most. True Grit was the one I really wanted to read however but all I could find was the Coen Brothers movie tie-in version. Not a single old copy to be found it seems. I held off, thinking my recent trip to Europe would facilitate the locating of a really pretty old pulp, no joy. In the end I found it in the secondhand bookshop I used to work at on the second day after getting back in to Perth. I travelled the world to find this book and it was well worth it.

If you are one of the 10,000 people to have rated this on Goodreads so far you already know what this is about. If you are not, the chances are that you've seen one or both of the fantastic movies that have been made from it in the last fifty years and you still don't need me to tell you that this is the story of Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon the guy with the French name and their quest to capture the murderer Tom Chaney. Set at the turn of the century in Arkansas and Oklahoma Charles Portis captures the spirit and rhythmic cadence of the time with apparent ease as he spins an authentic sounding tale of this period of American history.

“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 it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name 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 a compelling narrator, with a strong, unique voice. Her travelling companions are equally compelling and conflicted characters, two very different men who Mattie doubts over the course of the novel but all three of them demonstrate the meaning of the title of the novel in spades by the climax. The adventure is occasionally tense, quite violent at times, graphically depicted and wonderfully told. The denoument is one of the most excitingly written pieces of fiction I remember reading.

From the opening page I was hooked, everything about the novel was a joy to read. Whilst The End of Everything made me feel I could never read a book as good ever again, True Grit gives me hope that somewhere out there even more wonderful pieces of literature can be found to enjoy. Highest recommendation.

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