14 March 2013
To the arrival at the ferry into ‘Indian Territory’
This is about one third of the way through the novel, and I’m enjoying it a lot. What I’m finding most engaging is the superimposition of a highly correct, genteelly educated female consciousness on to the ultra-male world of the American Frontier. More specifically, we get the adult voice of Mattie Ross, telling the story of what happened to her when she was only fourteen years old. We know, because she tells us early on, that she is successful and rich – and the story we are hearing is, surely, her highly partial version of what she must have been like as a child. The dread possibility of the unreliable narrator raises its ugly head very early on, as we watch this implausibly capable girl running rings around all the men she encounters. But maybe Portis is doing something more interesting.
Mattie’s father has been murdered in a town in Arkansas near the border with ‘Indian Territory’ and, as the most capable member of the family (including her mother), she has travelled with a trusted Black employee to claim the body. She can see that the authorities are in no hurry to pursue the killer over the border – the list of fugitives is long, in tiny print – so she makes enquiries, finds out who will be able to do the job for money… and so on. In other words, she does what any enterprising woman of about 30 would do, and when the men around her protest that she should be at home playing with her dolls, well, they don’t understand that they’re in a satire written nearly a century in the future.
The adult Mattie – and the often holier-than-thou fourteen-year-old, for that matter – glosses over the moral ambiguity of what she is doing. Rooster Cogburn is a deputy marshal, and it seems unimportant to Mattie that, as becomes clear at a trial in which he’s a witness, that whilst he always seems to get his man he has no qualms about how he gets him. This one-eyed, hard-drinking man has what she wants and, for a change, she doesn’t quote scripture to justify the propriety of hiring him. The plot is made more interesting by the arrival of the preening Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, on the trail of the same man for the murder of a senator in his state. (LaBoeuf is the one who tells Mattie to get back to her dolls.) She treats him with contempt and cites her previous contract with Cogburn when he tries to enlist his help.
Plausibility might have become an issue, but what saves it is the voice of Mattie Ross. In her version of frontier life God is a real presence and a horse-dealer quotes Latin and Shakespeare. What I’d found most engaging about the recent Coen Brothers movie version was its language, and the same goes for the original novel. But now there’s the additional twist that we’re always conscious that what we’re hearing is only how one woman remembers it a long time afterwards. Somewhere in here are questions about historical truth, and I wonder what Portis is going to do with them.
I’ve been thinking about it. Portis is already doing something quite subversive with notions of historical truth. He’s writing in the 1960s, a time when it was almost de rigeur for a male writers in America to give emphasis to the machismo elements of their work. Writing was the new frontier, a worthwhile calling for men who had been to war, who knew about guns and survival, and who wanted to express the toughness of the male experience. Meanwhile the building of America through a brave frontier spirit had already been claimed, for generations, as a largely male achievement. Its history had been largely written by men, and its macho mythology had been co-opted by the writers of westerns and the film genre that grew out of them. Ok.
The novel strikes me as satirically revisionist in all sorts of ways. The way a fourteen-year-old slip of a girl gets exactly what she wants in a male-dominated culture can be seen as a blow against the mythology of machismo. But her methods – which, let’s face it, are the ones that really made America great – are the polar opposite of how the USA romanticises its history. She is the archetypal capitalist, as we see during her negotiations with the stock-dealer. It’s a master-class in bargaining for the best price, and incorporates two other key elements that have nothing whatever to do with the frontier mind-set. She has an infallible memory for figures, insisting on having everything written down whenever an agreement is made. (She does the same with Rooster Cogburn later.) And she knows exactly when to use the services of a good lawyer. As a fourteen-year-old girl in the closing decades of the 19th Century she might seem, however engaging, an implausible creation. As a satirical personification of the capitalism on which America’s success is built she’s perfect.
There’s another striking thing about Mattie, and I can’t decide yet whether it’s another archetypal feature. She is out to avenge the death of her father, murdered by ‘the coward, Tom Chaney’. She doesn’t see it as simple revenge, obviously. What she tells herself is that she’s bringing a murderer to justice. She is a God-fearing Presbyterian, says her prayers every night, and… and what? She’s a relentless harpy. She isn’t satisfied to let Rooster and LaBoeuf pursue Chaney across the state line. She has to be there at the capture, has to make sure he faces the justice he will escape if she isn’t there to make it happen. And did I mention that she’s good at quoting from the Bible? People like her always are.
The rest of the novel – to the end
Early on I wrote that Portis is raising questions of historical truth – and he isn’t only doing that. This is a book about telling stories, and he does a lot of different things with the idea. It’s no accident that when Mattie uses the word story she means ‘lie’, as though somewhere there’s an authorial presence wanting to remind us to take everybody’s version of events with a pinch of salt. I’ve already probably written enough about Mattie’s own presentation of her younger self. But she isn’t the only one talking. She’s hired Rooster Cogburn because of his reputation, and he guards this jealously. He likes to tell her of his achievements, and when LaBoeuf mocks his actions in the Civil War, Cogburn drinks himself into a defiant mood and talks up what he and his comrades were able to do in impossible circumstances. (We’ve had a taste of his veracity in court, of course. How many men has he killed in his four years as a deputy marshal? Twelve or fifteen, as he says? Or the 23 that are on record?) LaBoeuf himself has a story, Tom Chaney has a story (‘Everything is against me…’) and even Lucky Ned the ‘bandit chieftain’ feels the need to tell his young hostage the details of the most audacious train robbery in recent memory. Ok.
Something else Portis does is pastiche. Once in the territory known as ‘the Choctaw Nation’, very little happens that any fan of the gritty, violent western movies of the 1960s would find surprising. But Portis has other styles in his sights. Most obviously, there’s the archly literary style of Mattie Ross’s own narrative. A typical example, out of what are probably hundreds, is her description of Rooster Cogburn suddenly appearing, fully armed, in front of the escaping bandits: ‘no doubt they were surprised and not a little disconcerted by the interesting development.’ You can do a lot with adjectives, adverbial phrases and a kind of prissy understatement. By contrast, Mattie’s final trial is in the style of an adventure yarn from the late 19th Century. I recently re-read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the luridly gothic elements of Mattie’s experience in the snake-pit could be straight out of it. A skeleton with a ribcage full of writhing rattlesnakes, anyone?
And yet, and yet…. For all the satire, for all the revisionism, most of the male characters are recognisable types who play their parts in conventional ways. Rooster Cogburn is the gunfighter who still remembers the war and is trying to pick his way through a problematic and often anarchic peace. Mattie chooses him, going against type, because she recognises she needs a man who doesn’t play by the rules, which is a trope in itself. And not only does he turn out to have more ‘grit’ than Mattie could ever have dared to hope for; near the end Portis confirms for us what we suspected all along. Despite all her doubts, he proves to have a heart of gold. His heroic charge at the four armed bandits is matched by his heroic journey, overcoming all obstacles, to save Mattie’s life.
There’s another thread, and it accounts for the elegiac tone of the end of the novel. Early on, Mattie tells us that the ‘Indian territory’ where most of the action subsequently takes place has become the state of Oklahoma by the time of writing. The old ways of doing things are being forcibly superseded by rules drafted by bureaucrats, and it’s no accident that our first sight of Rooster is of him being made uncomfortable in court by a highly educated lawyer with friends in Washington. And these men, of course, are not to be trusted. LaBoeuf tempts Rooster with a list of rewards available for the apprehension of Tom Chaney for the murder of the senator – but Rooster would rather rely on the $100 in ‘cash money’ in accordance with Mattie’s impeccably drafted contract.
This is another archetypal American theme. It always seems rather quaint to an Old World outsider like me. I don’t mean the resentment of rule-bound authority or the corruption of politicians, which Europeans know all about. I mean the nostalgia for a time when it was possible – wasn’t it? – to ride out over the state line and make your own rules. I’m not sure how many killings Rooster adds to his tally during the few days covered in the main part of this novel, because nobody’s counting. I find myself wondering where Charles Portis stands on gun control.
Following a series of set-piece encounters – treacherous ‘stock thieves’, the gang of train robbers, Tom Chaney himself, shot and wounded by Mattie when he won’t come quietly – Rooster, with LaBoeuf’s help, has got his men. Unsurprisingly, they are all dead. Ok. But, by the time Mattie has brought us up to date, Rooster is dead as well. I mentioned the elegiac tone of the ending, and the last few pages have Mattie visiting a tawdry wild west show in which she knows Rooster performs. It’s now 1903, and she grieves for the fact that brave men, true fighters, have been reduced to this. Meanwhile Portis, of course, is slyly inviting the reader to mourn their fates in just the same way. It’s nostalgia for the old ways brought to its natural conclusion when Mattie finds out that Rooster, his part all played out, has died only a few days previously. It couldn’t have ended any other way.