Portis' Head

The crackpot odysseys of lost American master Charles Portis

 

"One thing I won't eat is hog's head cheese. My sister Vernell, you can turn her loose with a spoon and she'll eat a pound of it before she gets up. Some people call it souse."

"Why do they call it that?"

"I don't know. You got to have a name for everything."

"Yes, I hadn't thought of that. Well, they're both good names. Tripe. Souse."

 

In a DeLillo novel (say, End Zone, the writer's most sunbaked work), that dislocation would be an emblem of dread, humanity quaking before its self-made doom. Portis, in contrast, sees this as the personalized nuttiness that represents the only ration of sanity the world deals out to us. Picked up by the same bread-truck driver who has given Norwood a ride, one hitchhiker informs both men: "I'm going on in to Indianapolis. My wife is in the hospital there. She doesn't have any sweat glands." Or consider the two old ladies Ray Midge meets up with in Honduras. One of them offers him the short stories she has written about a

 

"red-haired beauty from New Orleans who went to New York and got a job as a secretary on the second floor of the Empire State Building. There were mysterious thefts in the office and the red-haired girl solved the mystery with her psychic powers. The thief turned out to be the boss himself and the girl lost her job and went back to New Orleans where she got another job that she liked better, although it didn't pay as well."

 

(That closing dependent clause is the master's touch: a perfect anticlimax.)

And what's wrong with a touch of self-delusion? If we can't make ourselves the heroes of our own lives (even if those lives amount only to pulp), who will? At the conclusion of Dog of the South, Ray's lawyer asks him what everyone out there is looking for. "A good job of work to do," Ray answers. Love, another character says. No, the lawyer replies, it's really a place where we can get food cheap "on a regular basis." Whatever the answer, for Portis the cultivation of such trivia may be the only reality principle left us in a world saturated with adspeak and cheap goods.

Alone among his contemporaries, Portis looks the future in the eye and chuckles. And that good cheer keeps you coming back. Although his shaggy-dog novels refuse neat narrative arcs or real resolution, the taste for Portis isn't hard to acquire. (The exception to this narrative rambling is True Grit, whose orderliness probably accounts for its comparative success. Still, the aged narrator's fine, vinegary voice and hardheaded determination to catch her father's murderer make this book the more directed sister to some goof-off siblings.)

Though I slightly prefer the detailed whimsy of Dog of the South (and I haven't even gotten to Ray's traveling companion, blowhard dreamer Dr. Reo Symes, who must be read to be believed), many loyalists swear by Norwood. Either way, Portis is still at work and published fragments of an autobiography in The Atlantic this year. He could still write a conventional novel, and everyone who lugged home Infinite Jest might even embrace it. But how much fun would mass acclaim be, anyway?

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