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Nothing makes sense except Charles Portis – Mother Jones

John Wayne and Glen Campbell on the set of True Grit.Entertainment images / ZUMA

I made my first experiments on Southern identity at the age of 13, when my father gave me a copy of Barry Hannah Geronimo Rex. It was something I didn’t know I needed. I was tired of bullying, mostly self-inflicted, that I was too loser, nerd, geek, fake, lameass (plus all the insults that aren’t worth printing). I wanted to claim something for myself. I chose Southern; I chose Rex. I said to an imaginary enemy: “No, I too am like you all.”

Of course, nobody cared. Only a real idiot would think that a 1972 novel could help him fit into high school life in the late 2000s. Hi, I’m that idiot. But the process has continued for years. I found a southern writer or southern musician and connected. I used their work to create a sense of myself as part of something bigger, a tradition. When I lived in Little Rock, I found Charles Portis.

He died this week, at 86 years old New York Times Obituary was written by the legendary Roy Reed before Reed died in 2017 and is a wonderful peek into Portis’ work. He was a giant of the author for many, especially for those I respected, and especially for the Arkanese. I have spent an incredibly small amount of time in the state, working for a little over a year in a weekly and magazine. But even during that short period, I felt his presence. His name was pronounced in a certain tone. I read to recover. Portis’ Offis lines were somewhat local maximum. “When the beer came,” he wrote in a novel, “I dipped a finger and wet every corner of the paper towel to anchor it, so that it didn’t come out with the cup every time and made me look ridiculous.” I heard people say this; I’ve seen someone do it. Roy Blount Jr. has noticed the difficulty of explaining how the line has become a classic. Try it the next time you go to a bar. Read Portis.

I can’t claim it at all. (Same goes for Hannah.) But I interacted with those who loved Portis, who could shake every sentence of her, apparently, and read a lot about Portis when I was in Little Rock – and I felt free. Portis wrote as someone who understood his world. It was casual, fun, rambling. You really wanted to be his friend (or at least I did). Most of his novels follow someone who walks and sees strange bullshit. Some of his best magazine articles are travel writers. You don’t have to make sense to be in a Portis world. Nothing makes perfect sense. But unlike a Pynchon character, you are real; this is not a dream. You’re driving down the highway, that’s all. He told stories of shaggy dogs in which oddity was only a normal part of life.

“Yes, I’m doing well”, Grady Fring the king Kredit, a disgusting fool, tells the character of the picaresque novel of Portis Norwood. The two drink “a bottle of Old Forester from under the seat” in Fring’s “big new Buick Invicta with red leather upholstery”, combining whiskey with “crushed ice in a milkshake carton”. This kind of unusual thing happens all the time in real life. You find yourself in someone’s car, drinking, and he wants you to admire the ephemerals of his life, and what you remember later are some strange and fugitive details: the ice was broken, the covering was red leather. I think of my friend’s grandmother, who drives around my city with a sweet cup of white wine in her hand. She had made a habit of hiding constant intake when she had young children, and then she never stopped.

Portis was home on the counterattack. This was important to me. I never made sense, at least not for myself, and I wanted an identity when my father gave me Hannah. For some years now I lived in a video game to make it. But then I got too old for that, or maybe bored. And I was looking again.

Everyone called me Jewish, only the part of my father’s family, who in the 2000s had abandoned any semblance of their Judaism Seinfeld replicas and chest; In reality, unfortunately, I am very Catholic. So what could I be? This is a dangerous question for a young white man in the south. I have tried different forms. In middle school, our history books were geared towards a version of the Civil War that draped the South in honor. I became the left kid who wanted to learn the evolution section of our second grade biology course, despite the teacher recommending that we skip it. (The next day I printed over 20 copies of Charles Darwin’s Wikipedia page, putting one on each desk.) At the same time, I told my friends that I wanted the nickname “Stonewall”. As in, Jacob “Stonewall” Rosenberg; as in Stonewall Jackson, Confederate general, because he was shot, and it was certainly brave. A small child of the Lost Cause whom the Cause would reject. (By the way, Jackson was hit by a friendly fire.)

Now he looks like an idiot. But for many southern white kids, learning about racism is a bit like learning about sex: someone on a bus or on the playground explains to you in a whisper all the things your parents didn’t want you to know, and suddenly it’s everywhere and that’s all you think about.

So, OK, my Southernness should be built with other materials. I wanted to find things that resembled and sounded to the world around me: to strip shopping malls, highways, filthy and strange shit. You can speak of the South as a land of honor, or you can speak of the South as a country of shit, but all this seemed foreign. For me, it was more random – it was just strange, that’s all. But also normal. Hannah was my first entry. I read Geronimo Rex in high school a few times, probably the only book I’ve read, and I remember a specific phrase from the first page: “It looked like an old blackboard eraser floating in a puddle of beer.” Yes, exactly: that south. I can’t quote Anna’s phrases like her apostles. But I loved it. Then the others arrived: Walker Percy, Randall Kenan, Carson McCullers, Larry Brown, Willie Morris, Flannery O’Connor.

Portis was the one who unlocked everything, though. It was funny in the same way as my favorite comedians; he was also a journalist, with Tom Wolfe (a favorite) and Nora Ephron (my idol) al New York Herald Tribune. I wrote comedy; I was a journalist. He went to write the great novel and did it. True courage it is unlike anything else in American literature. It’s his best job. But of course my favorite is The southern dog.

“Idleness and loneliness led to these tragedies: a normal turdulante indulging as the leader of sinners,” explains the narrator as he breaks down on his failed car. (I crave Bill Hader’s film adaptation of that scene and I’m afraid too.)

I’ve felt like a scam all my life and I’m not going to stop now. Right now I feel like a right-winger, as I tell you what others can say better, which is that Charles Portis is the best writer you’ve never read. But laughing at your grandeur, twisting you in a ridiculous search for meaning, undermining your claims of seriousness with a joke – it seems Portis.

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