We all know this story, right? I feel like a lot of people read this book a decade ago when the Coen brothers released their adaptation, starring Jeff Bridges. Prior to that, of course, was the 1969 movie starring John Wayne, for which he famously won his only Oscar. I say “famous” because I grew up hearing how he was the greatest movie star of all time and only won one golden statue, as if that were somehow and oversight that invalidated the whole award system.
I never really took it seriously as a work of art. It just seemed like an adventure story with a young teenage girl and an old brutish man. They chase after the man who murdered her father, and have a kind of wry, charming affinity for one another. Entertaining, but largely not particularly deep or meaningful.
Having read the book, though, I think – as often seems to be the case when I actually sit down and experience the thing for itself – I think there’s a lot more to this book than that.
Mattie, the teenage girl in this book, is so much more than that. I found her unlike just about any other character I can think of. She moralizes over Rooster Cogburn’s drunkenness and gambling and sleeping in late in a way that only a pathologically Presbyterian person in the 19th century can: with gusto. But she’s largely indifferent to the brutality that plays out in front of her, and is even directed at her, at times. She’s headstrong and independent to the point of recklessness, but utterly unwilling to tolerate the reprobates with whom she is surrounded. I found her to be quite charming.
And the book is told by her later in life as she reflects back on events decades behind her, leaving some question as her reliability.
Roy Blount, Jr said of Portis that he “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” Now, I don’t know how strongly I agree with that statement – but there is something to be said for the comparison. Tonally, the way Portis handled the darkness in this story does remind me somewhat of McCarthy, but with an unmistakable wink throughout the book that blunts the edge somewhat.