Monday, March 16, 2009

The best American author nobody cares about (anymore)

So I don’t get burned out on baseball novels (if that’s even possible), I’m not reading them back-to-back. I’m wedging non-baseball novels in between. Having finished “The Celebrant,” now I’m reading a book written in 1966. It was the first novel from an author who went on to write some pretty amazing fiction.

The book is called “Norwood,” and the author is Charles Portis.

If the name rings a bell, I’d be surprised; he's gotten substantial acclaim, but he hasn't reached that penultimate level of literary fame. Most everybody knows about at least one of Portis’ books, though, because it was made into a popular John Wayne movie: “True Grit.”

“Norwood,” which was also made into a movie, is the third Portis book I’ve read (and according to his Wikipedia page, he’s only written five novels over the course of 25 years - the first in 1966 and the last in 1991).

The ones I’ve read are simply brilliant. And what strikes me the most is how different they are; most of the time, authors - even the great ones - fall into a pattern and write what they know. Stephen King writes horror. Mario Puzo wrote mafia novels. Don’t get me wrong, those authors are terrific, and I cherish their books. But it takes someone special to be able to write such diverse books as Charles Portis has.

For example: “True Grit,” the story of 14-year-old girl Mattie Ross teaming up with Old West lawman Rooster Cogburn to track down Ross’s father’s killer, is the best Western I’ve ever read - “Lonesome Dove” included.

“Norwood,” about a young Marine who takes a circuitous route from his home in Ralph, Texas, to New York City, is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and other great road stories.

And “Gringos,” written in 1991, the story of an American expatriate living in Mexico, most strongly resembles the great mystery novels of John D. MacDonald. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

Charles Portis is still alive and kicking, but I’ve read he’s a bit of a recluse. It’s been 18 years since he’s released a novel and a decade since he’s published anything at all. So maybe we’ll be blessed with another Portis book soon. And this wonderful American author will be brought back to the forefront of American literature.

(And by the way - Portis was a journalist, too.)

--Matt Kelsey

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