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Whenever I hear someone called a "cult writer," my hackles jump toward the ceiling. It's not only that the phrase calls up images of self-congratulatory hipsters, but that writers who become cultish tend to do so because their work is steeped in bizarro sex, graphic violence, trippy weirdness or half-baked philosophy.
The grand exception is my favorite American writer, 78-year-old Charles Portis, who could hardly be less hip. This ex-Marine loves cars, knows guns, can't stand hippies and lives off the media radar in Little Rock, Ark., without being famous for trying not to be famous. If his name rings a bell, it's because he wrote True Grit, a sneaky-dark Western that inspired two movies and was the closest he ever came to trying to write the Great American Novel. Yet among Portis' followers — and yes, we're a cult — that book doesn't display what makes him special. For us, thinking that True Grit is the best of his five novels is like saying "Hey Jude" is the Beatles at their finest.
He hasn't published a book since 1991, so my heart soared when I learned about Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. It brings together pieces that we cultists have been passing around like samizdat literature. The book's editor, Jay Jennings, has collected lots of good stuff, including Portis' '60s articles about the civil rights movement, assorted short stories, a new play and the longest interview he ever gave.
What I like most here are his travel pieces — a terrific portrait of Nashville music, a sharply drawn auto trip down Baja California, and an affectionately droll memoir of three cheap hotels, the kind of places where you would find, he writes, "British journalists named Clive, Colin, or Fiona, scribbling notes and getting things wrong for their journey books about the real America, that old and elusive theme."
Of course, Portis himself works that same old and elusive theme, even if he proceeds elusively. He doesn't tackle the CIA head-on like Don DeLillo or big-city racial politics like Tom Wolfe. He'd never call a novel Freedom. Instead, he tells cockeyed stories filled with digressions and a Gogolian profusion of garrulous oddballs — con men like Grady Fring the Kredit King, and warped visionaries like Dr. Reo Symes — who turn up and regale us with stories of other oddball characters whom they've met but we never will. And in this very looseness, Portis captures key features of our national psyche.
For starters, he writes about — and shares — our national obsession with being on the move. His plots are quests, whether it's the ex-Marine hero of Norwood going from small-town Texas to New York City to collect some money or the mild-mannered hero of The Dog of the South chasing his runaway wife from Arkansas to British Honduras by following the route marked out by her credit card bills. Portis clearly loves the road as much as Jack Kerouac, but he doesn't mythologize it. He knows that restless motion is part of our national DNA.
So is the obsessive quest for some sort of hidden truth behind daily life. His books are crawling with gurus, self-help specialists, secret organizations and devotees of cosmic conspiracies, like the hippies in search of Mayan wisdom in the novel Gringos or the members of the Gnomon Society in Masters of Atlantis, who wear funny hats and think they have The Answer. In Portis' America, everybody is always looking for that special piece of knowledge that will let ordinary people feel less, well, ordinary.
I suspect Portis would be chagrined to have me state all this so baldly. You see, what makes his work magical is the deadpan brilliance of his language, which is at once extraordinarily observant — he notices the iridescent rainbow sheen on a slice of roast beef — and yet comically askew, so that we see the world in a way we've not quite seen it before. He's our funniest living writer with a sense of humor so sly that you can read his best book, The Dog of the South, five or 10 times and still find jokes you've never noticed before.
So if you've never read Portis, here's what I'd recommend: Pick up his first novel, Norwood, and don't stop reading until you reach the scene with the sideshow chicken, Joann the Wonder Hen, who's probably the wisest character in all his work. If you do this, I feel confident the Portis cult will have enlisted another member.