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Pelecanos on the Enduring Power of 'True Grit'

<strong>Scroll down</strong> to read an excerpt from chapter one of <em>True Grit.</em>
Scroll down to read an excerpt from chapter one of True Grit.
John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in the 1969 film version of 'True Grit.' Wayne won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role.
/ Keystone/Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archives/Getty Images
John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in the 1969 film version of 'True Grit.' Wayne won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role.

Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. This summer, NPR.org talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."

True Grit is best known as a movie -- directed by noir and Western hand Henry Hathaway and featuring John Wayne's sole Oscar-winning performance as drink-and trigger-happy federal marshal Rooster Cogburn. But Charles Portis' novel, published in 1968, is even better. It's a dark coming-of-age tale told in the deceptively innocent voice of a 14-year-old frontier girl, Mattie Ross, who seeks vengeance for the murder of her father in the years just after the Civil War.

George Pelecanos, a master of contemporary noir fiction set in Washington D.C., hails Portis' debut work of fiction as "one of the very best American novels."

Q: How did you come to read True Grit? Did you, like most of us, see the movie first?

A: I did not read many books at all until I was in my twenties, so it would have been then, or perhaps later. I first saw the film in 1969 with my dad. When I finally did get around to reading the book, I found that most of the famous dialogue from the film was lifted verbatim from the novel. (Ned Pepper: "I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!" Rooster Cogburn: "Fill your hand, you sonofabitch!") Portis' novel was a revelation and in every way surpassed my experience with the film, which is one I like very much indeed, and view often to this day. I don't think anyone has come close to what Portis achieved with this book. It's all in the voice of Mattie Ross.

Q: How does Mattie's matter-of-fact view of Cogburn's grisly brand of frontier justice square with her high-Presbyterian priggishness in the realm of personal morality? Why does Cogburn embody "grit" when he's blowing away outlaws, but a sinfulness when he drinks and plays cards?

A: The novel's dispassionate look at violence as seen through the eyes of Mattie is, at first read, remarkable. Less so, however, if one considers how deeply moralistic by way of scripture she is. Is there a more violent book than the Bible? The "eye for an eye" ethos of the Old Testament has definitely made an impact on our heroine.

In its rather clinical view of death, True Grit rivals the hardboiled world of Red Harvest-era Dashiell Hammett and prefigures Cormac McCarthy by 20 years. "I can do nothing for you, son," says Rooster to the mortally wounded bandit Moon. "Your pard has killed you and I have done for him." As Moon is dying, Mattie coolly observes, "Here is what was in his eyes: confusion."

Q: You don't hear a voice like Mattie's much in American fiction -- an independent girl, looking for a father surrogate and experiencing some disturbing signs of sexual awakening, all in some of the most violent and grisly conditions you could imagine.

A: That's right. Interestingly, there's a hint throughout the novel that "the true account of how I avenged Frank Ross's blood over in the Choctaw Nation" is not a true account at all, but rather a tall tale written by a successful, eccentric, misunderstood woman who is attempting to make sense of her adult life as she ages. Rooster himself is a teller of tall tales. He describes his past with enough outlandish detail to fill a separate novel.

Mattie's voice, wry and sure, is one of the great creations of modern American fiction. I put it up there with Huck Finn's, and that is not hyperbole. In fact, I find True Grit to be one of the very best American novels: It is a rousing adventure story and deeply perceptive about the makeup of the American character.

Most important, it can be appreciated by readers of various ages, education levels and economic backgrounds. It's an egalitarian work of art. True Grit is one of the few books my sons let me read to them -- and paid attention to -- when they were younger. I have every intention of reading it to my daughter one of these days. I think she will like the spirit of Mattie.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehman is a fomer deputy editor and regular reviewer for the Washington Post Book World. He is now an editor at Congressional Quarterly and covers national politics for the New York Observer. He is the author of Revolt of the Masscult.