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‘True Grit’ and ‘Gringos’ novelist Charles Portis dies at age 86

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Charles Portis’ final novel was set in Merida.

Novelist Charles Portis, best known his bloody Western “True Grit,” but who also depicted a seedy expat world in Merida, died Monday at age 86.

“True Grit” was a best-seller twice adapted into Oscar-nominated films, but critics also praised lesser-known “Gringos” and “Norwood.”

Portis, a former newspaper reporter, had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. His brother, Jonathan Portis, told The Associated Press that he died in a hospice in Little Rock, Arkansas, his longtime residence.

A Portis novel is usually set in the American South and south of the border, where haracters embarked on journeys that took the most unpredictable detours.

In “Norwood,” an ex-Marine from Texas heads East in a suspicious car to collect a suspicious debt, but winds up on a bus with a circus dwarf, a chicken and a girl he just met.

In “Gringos,” written in 1991, an expatriate in Merida finds himself amid hippies, end-of-the-world cultists, UFO hunters and disappearing friends. It was his fifth and final novel.

But Portis was known best for “True Grit,” the quest of Arkansas teen Mattie Ross to avenge her father’s murder. The novel was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1968 and was soon adapted (and softened) as a film showcase for John Wayne, who starred as Rooster Cogburn, the drunken, one-eyed marshal Mattie enlists to find the killer. The role brought Wayne his first Academy Award and was revived by the actor, much less successfully, in the sequel “Rooster Cogburn.”

Portis was born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, one of four children of a school superintendent and a housewife whom Portis thought could have been a writer herself. As a kid, he loved comic books and movies and the stories he learned from his family. In a brief memoir written for The Atlantic Monthly, he recalled growing up in a community where the ratio was about “two Baptist churches or one Methodist church per gin. It usually took about three gins to support a Presbyterian church, and a community with, say, four before you found enough tepid idolators to form an Episcopal congregation.”

Colleagues included Tom Wolfe, who regarded Portis as “the original laconic cutup” and a fellow rebel against the boundaries of journalism, and Nora Ephron, who would remember her colleague as a sociable man with a reluctance to use a telephone.

The narrator in “Gringos,” the expatriate American Jimmy Burns, runs errands for English-speaking archeologists, sharing wry observations about the foibles and mores of his compatriots. His descriptions of his fellow Americans down among the ruins have a comic edge.

His take-out on a pair of American UFO aficionados, Louise and Rudy Kurle, include this riff: ”Louise was a good girl. Some days she went out into the countryside plucking bits of blowing plastic from bushes so the goats could get at the leaves. She truly wished everyone well, reminding me of my grandfather, a Methodist preacher, who included the Dionne quintuplets and the Postmaster General in his long itemized prayers. Louise and Rudy were graduates of some college in Pennsylvania . . . her degree was in Human Dynamics. Rudy had one, a dual degree, he said, in City Planning and Mass Communications. First he would build the city and then he would tell everybody about it in the approved way. . . .”

Burns calls himself ”the very picture of an American idler in Mexico, right down to the grass-green golfing trousers.”

It’s Christmas in Merida, but a near fatal encounter with some burned-out hippies in the countryside sets the mood for further mayhem to come. Then Rudy disappears from the site of an archeological dig, and Jimmy Burns is off on a jungle quest, in search of Louise’s missing partner, a quest that charges the American idler with real purpose and galvanizes the plot of the novel, according to a Chicago Tribune review written at the time.

In more recent years, the author lived in open seclusion, a regular around Little Rock who drove a pickup truck, enjoyed an occasional beer and stepped away from reporters. He did turn up to collect The Oxford American’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature and was known to answer the occasional letter from a reader. But otherwise Portis seemed to honor Mattie’s code in “True Grit” for how to deal with journalists.

“I do not fool around with newspapers,” Mattie says. “The paper editors are great ones for reaping where they have not sown. Another game they have is to send reporters out to talk to you and get your stories free. I know the young reporters are not paid well and I would not mind helping those boys out with their ‘scoops’ if they could ever get anything right.”

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