Thursday, December 20, 2007

True Grit by Charles Portis (unabridged audio book read by Donna Tartt)

I read a lot of books (over 100 a year), and it's rare that I actually have an emotional response. Not to the story — that has to happen or reading would be no fun at all. I mean feeling genuine affection for the characters, so that I'm actually sorry the story is over.

True Grit is the first book in a long time to elicit that response from me, and I'm not exactly sure why it did. It was certainly not the plot, which is simplicity itself: fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires an unconventional deputy U.S. marshal (and former member of "Quantrill's Raiders"), Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, to hunt down Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. That’s all, but it takes the whole book for that storyline to complete itself, and what a glorious ride it is.

What makes the read memorable is how Portis draws his two lead characters. The title attribute is at first meant to apply to Cogburn, of course, but we soon discover that Mattie herself has just as much "grit" (the word "sand" is also used in this way) when she asks the local sheriff for his opinion on who the best marshal is:

He said, "...I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking.... Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive.... He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say that Quinn is about the best they have."

I said, "Where can I find this Rooster?"

Mattie is full of surprises, but we soon find that Rooster is, too. Introduced as a hard-drinking, unreliable man who is the epitome of the loner, Rooster begins to grudgingly admire the "sand" (a.k.a. "grit") of this "child" and a kind of respect (and later, affection) grows between them. It is this unexpected turn of character (along with other surprising touches that kept me on my toes) that display Portis's skill to such great effect.

Donna Tartt (an author in her own right) gives a fine reading on the audiobook of True Grit. Her Mississippi accent substitutes for the Arkansas twang of the characters well enough for most listeners, and her vocal characterizations are utterly perfect. Not only are they distinct and unmistakable, but they also express a deep knowledge of these people as individuals, allowing the listener to completely get lost in the story.

Tartt's afterword adds little except to express her entire family's love for the book (it is, I understand, an introduction to the print edition, and is probably better served in that capacity), but acts as a good celebration of a book that is likely to become one of my favorites, as well.

Like I stated at the beginning, very few books speak to my emotions the way that True Grit did, and I look forward to reexperiencing its wonders in the near future because this is one book that will require multiple readings to really understand its subtleties. This is not just a terrific Western; it's a terrific novel, and one that deserves a wider audience.

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