True Grit by Charles Portis Day 12
September 14, 2020 | From p. 193 to p. 215 (end)
Rooster: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” Mattie’s narration itself seems energized by the breathless stream of four clauses with no commas and four “and”s that seem to echo the four bandits he’s charging at.
Rooster has foreshadowed this showdown in his account of him going against seven men, in exactly this manner (reins in teeth, riding Bo right at them, firing his “two navy sixes).
Back then Mattie found this hard to believe—making this nearly similar incident even more thrilling.
Rooster is so unwavering in his charge that they break their line “ere he reached them”—a startling lapse into poetic language for Mattie. A great visual, describing him snapping his head side to side “to bring his good eye into play.”
And now it’s LaBoeuf’s turn—I love how the action isn’t just a (gripping) set piece, but a way to crystallize all the previous relationships we’ve seen: Rooster and Ned, Rooster and LaBoeuf, Mattie watching it all (indeed, the center of it all).
“The ball flew to its mark like a martin to his gourd.” Second mention of martins and their dwellings, for those of us keeping count.
Mattie’s cheering and LaBoeuf’s moment of pride give Chaney an advantage—we readers too have forgotten about him amid the excitement. The level of orchestration is masterful (to say nothing of pace).
Mattie falls (almost) into the pit, body caught in the opening like a cork in a bottle. Portis takes us swiftly from action to stasis: M. with a broken arm is suspended between sunlight and shadow, victory and doom, childhood and the rest of her life.
We get six pages of just Mattie, assessing her position—a big change in a book filled with her observing and interacting with people. Portis keeps the pages turning because it unfolds like a horror movie. An escalating series of shocks.
A spider that turns out to be a bat, to be *bats* plural. A scrap of cloth revealing—a human skeleton…with a *ball of snakes* in its ribcage! M. using the bones to fend off the rattlers—an organic vision of hell.
Then Chaney plunges into the hole, “scattering the puzzled rattlesnakes every which way.” Unnervingly beautiful: “The movement caused the serpent to roll over with his white belly up and I gave my shoulder a shake and he fell into the darkness below.”
Rescue. Rooster tending to her bite: scarifying it with his dirk knife, rubbing a wad of chewed tobacco over it to draw out the venom. Race against time. Rooster and Mattie riding Little Blackie.
As with everything in this chapter, things are running at a feverish clip, which then escalates. Spurring, whipping, then cutting “a brutal slash on the pony’s withers.” Then rubbing salt into that wound.
The sheer velocity of this book is hard to match. Little Blackie dies (“There never was a nobler pony”), as if Portis has exhausted the very idea of the pony, used up every ounce of its life.
The journey to safety continues, culminating in the amputation of her arm “with a little surgical saw.” We see her mother for the first time. Mattie praises her (“for sitting there and not flinching”), downplaying her own grit.
I just love how this sentence sounds: “I went home on a varnish train, lying flat on my back on a stretcher that was placed in the aisle of a coach.” That now-exotic phrase gives the whole thing an air of earned luxury.
The chronology speeds up over these last few pages. We learn of Rooster’s fate, mostly through rumors received by Chen Lee. It’s a sad decline.
Twenty-five years after she last saw Rooster, Mattie’s brother sends her a clipping from the Memphis Commercial Appeal (where Portis once worked).
Rooster is appearing in a Wild West show, his billing designed to attract both sides: HE RODE WITH QUANTRILL! HE RODE FOR PARKER!
Cole Younger and Frank James are also part of the show, men who had fought alongside Rooster “under Quantrill’s black standard…and now this was all they were fit for…”
“[T]o show themselves to the public like strange wild beasts of the jungle.” She’s judging them the way her younger self *didn’t* judge Rooster, back when she needed him for his grit, to do the job she needed done.
Mattie learns that Rooster just died a few days ago. The poignancy is almost unbearable: To be just a few days late, after a quarter century apart!
I love how Mattie doesn’t break character as she describes reburying Rooster in her family plot and shrugging off town gossip. Plus we learn, at last, her occupation: “It is true that I love my church and I love my bank.”
Of *course* she’s a banker—entirely fitting for someone who at age fourteen got her money’s worth—getting Stonehill to buy back the ponies, hiring Rooster to track down Chaney.
There’s humor here, too: “I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to make him cashier.” She’s a “woman with brains and a frank tongue and one sleeve pinned up and an invalid mother to care for” and thus not obvious marriage material.
As a friend noted, there’s something refreshing about a heroine *not* winding up married or otherwise paired off at the end of a book.
True Grit offers so much escapism—the quest, the open spaces, the action—but is rigorously unromantic (with a small-r) when it comes to love.
But watch how Portis balances the character we love—her voice, her grit—with a note of unresolved sadness. She turns to LaBoeuf and his cowlick in the last paragraph.
“Time just gets away from us.” Are you crying yet?
The last sentence has the ring of a classic, restating the opening, but now invested with other losses. Mattie accomplished what she set out to do, but at what cost? An arm, and more.
“This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.” *Now* you’re crying.
September 5, 2020 | From p.40 ("Some people will say...") to p. 54 ("The defendant is remanded into custody.)
September 12, 2020 | From bottom of p.157 ("The man with the black mark...") to p.173 ("...don't be stopping again!")