Bloomsbury £7.99 (215pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
True Grit, By Charles Portis
Friday 04 February 2011
If the Oscar for best actor depends largely on the character portrayed, I'd be voting for an over-the-hill, drunken, one-eyed US deputy marshal rather than a stuttering king. John Wayne won his only Oscar for his bravura portrayal of Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn and the same role has put Jeff Bridges in the running this year. Yet the murderous lawman is not the central figure in True Grit. Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old farm girl who hires Cogburn to bring in her father's killer, is both protagonist and narrator of the yarn.
Charles Portis's fertile novel from 1968 has been compared to Mark Twain and Daisy Ashford. Praise could come no higher. In every detail of time, place and action, it is a convincing depiction of 1870s Arkansas as recalled from a distance of 40 years by a resolute, eye-for-an-eye Presbyterian. Filled to the brim with the Old Testament, Mattie is fearless and ferocious. Humour is not his strong suit but she faithfully records it in others. Her fierce determination is first made evident when she forces a dealer to take back horses he sold to her father. "You will find a buyer for the ponies," she says after recovering $325. The dealer replies: "I have a tentative offer of ten dollars per head from the Pfitzer Soap Works of Little Rock." The courtly language of the characters is precise, vivid and articulate like very few Westerns but like many Victorian novels.
Their deadpan exchanges explain why the Coen brothers, professional prospectors for black humour, chose to re-make True Grit. The story is undeniably gripping with violence erupting from nowhere, as it often does in life. The lives of the characters may be nasty, brutish and short, but Cogburn achieves reluctant redemption as he honours his contract with the girl. He is still a considerable distance from being a saint. Cogburn's plan for trapping a gang shocks a fellow bounty hunter. "I will kill the last one to go in." "You will shoot him in the back?" "It will give them to know our intentions is serious."
By contrast, the murderer of Mattie's father expresses misgivings. "I regret that shooting. Mr Ross was decent to me but he ought not to have meddled in my affairs." Though the Coens' film is said to stick very closely to the book, here it reverses the original to sharpen our desire for revenge: "I do not regret killing your father." The productive and brilliant Coens will know what they're doing, but it is a step away from the blurry morality of Portis's slender, hugely enjoyable masterpiece. CH
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
newsFormer soldier taped 33 of the animals to the floor and then stamped on them one by one
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
Geoffrey Macnab reviews American Hustle, also starring Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper
news Opponents claim it would stop performers such as Beyonce and Madonna appearing on TV
It takes a platoon of chefs, litres of brandy and rum, and almost 100kg of dried fruit
newsThat most ancient of crimes is on the rise, threatening farmers' livelihoods, community trust – and human health
Arts & Ents blogs
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 North Koreans are gasping for the truth: Let's give it to them
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 5 Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
- < Previous
- Next >