Book Review

14/06/2011 Comments Off on Book Review

True Grit by Clinton Portis

True Grit is, at heart, a comedy of errors.

The story is narrated by Mattie Ross, the story’s protagonist, as an autobiographical sketch.  As the book closes, the reader senses that this story was initially intended to be published in a magazine but was unfortunately rejected by the editors.  As such, the reader then infers that this is a story that Mattie feels compelled to tell to others.  Incidentally, the recounting of the story occurs twenty-five years after the events described, giving the narration a sense of hindsight and wisdom.

Throughout the book, there are numerous biblical allusions and references to 19th century religious practices.  This motif is revisited multiple times, as if Mattie believes that story-telling should be an inherently moral endeavor.  There is certainly some credence to this approach, for amoral tales are simply mindless entertainment at best, and muddled bores at worst.  Thus, there must be a moral purpose to a story (whether intended consciously is for another time), else a story simply becomes idle babblings.

Of course in True Grit, morality is not as straightforward as Ms. Ross would make it to appear.  Her goal to avenge her father’s violent murder is noble enough at the beginning:  She wants the coward Tom Chaney to hang for his crime.   Yet, when she seeks out a marshal to track Chaney, she chooses Rooster Cogburn, in part, I believe, because he is described as a pitiless man.  It is thus somewhat contradictory for her to claim that she wants justice for her father when she picks Cogburn over L.T. Quinn, who is said to make a point of bringing his prisoners in alive.

This contradiction becomes more amusing when Mattie objects to Cogburn joining forces with LaBoeuf (pronounced, as Mattie tells us, “luh-beef”).  She claims that she wants Chaney to be brought alive to Little Rock to stand trial for his crimes, but hiring Cogburn would indicate that some part of her is hoping that Chaney does something that would get him shot and killed.

As noted before, this story is at its essence a comedy of errors.  Some of this is due to Mattie’s contradictory morality, as already noted, and some of this is due to the presence of Rooster Cogburn.  As far as literary characters go, Rooster Cogburn is both memorable and amusing.  Portis was blessed with an ear for dialog, much like Twain was, which is seen most clearly in Cogburn, who has a manner of talking that is entirely suitable to his role and character. Cogburn is full of braggadocio initially, although it becomes clear that, once on the trail, he is prone to exaggeration.  He also has a blind spot for his weaknesses.

This leads him to making hare-brained schemes, at first to outwit Mattie, who has demanded to ride along, and then later to capture and kill “Lucky” Ned Pepper.  Most of the second half of the book is concerned with the capture of Chaney, and Cogburn plays no small part in causing the chase to be longer than it needs be.

Note finally that this comedy of errors plays out to an ironic end.  Mattie’s desire for justice causes her to lose her arm, which comes as a direct result of killing Chaney herself.  Cogburn, of course, manages to ensure that she survives her nearly-lethal end, but he leaves once she is safe.

It seems that they both developed a fondness for each other.  Initially, we are told that she seeks him out because he is a man with “true grit.”  This assessment is true, to be sure, but it would be better reflected in Mattie.  They both admire the sagacity and tenacity of the other, but seem unable to relate to the other outside of their once-shared goal.

There are also, it should be noted, other aspects of the book that work to ensure that this is an inherently humorous read.  Mattie is a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued fourteen year old girl, and her exchanges with LaBoeuf are often pointed and funny.  LaBoeuf’s exchanges with Cogburn are also humorous, which again speaks to Portis’s ear for dialogue.

In all, the book is fun read.  The main characters are an enjoyable bunch, as is Mattie’s narration.  True Grit is a great way to spend a couple of hours.

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