The Voice of Mattie Ross

     The new Coen brothers film True Grit is currently enjoying much success, both at the box office and with what passes for film critics these days. I’ve been asked more than once if I plan to see it, but I remain reluctant. Putting aside my personal opinion that said brothers are a tad overrated – their comic films (with the possible exception of The Big Lebowski) failing to transcend their self-conscious quirkiness, and none of their dramas exceeding the chilling effectiveness, even after 27 years, of their very first offering, Blood Simple – the reluctance stems from my longstanding enthusiasm for the film’s inspiration, the eccentric and charming Charles Portis novel, published in 1968 and as fresh and vibrant a performance now as when the novel first appeared to high acclaim and immediate Hollywood adaptation.

     The decidedly mediocre film starring John Wayne was also highly successful and with time came to overshadow the book, a shame since, unlike the movie, the novel is a highly entertaining, historically intriguing, and psychologically convincing work. Portis’s great accomplishment is to create in the character of Mattie Ross a living, breathing human being, as vital and compelling as Salinger’s Caulfield or Cary’s Jimson and at least as funny. The sly humour in the book is unintended by Ross, who narrates the story decades after it took place, most of it playing off her obliviousness to her own narration’s many ironies and the numerous scenes of high energy dialogue.

     The young Mattie, determined to avenge her father’s murder, confronts a series of men – assorted undertakers, horse traders, sheriffs, marshals, outlaws, and killers – all of whom regard her with contempt and incredulity, and all eventually compelled by Mattie’s grit and loquaciousness to regret ever running into her. A shrewd and indefatigable verbal scrapper, she refuses to accept anything less than her full due in any circumstance, despite her age and sex.

     As the now elderly Ross narrates her tale, the reader never questions her version of events, instead falling under the spell of a voice at once idiosyncratic, yet somehow familiar. It’s not only her 19th century Arkansas diction which charms us, but the continual surprises which naturally arise from a fully imagined and unique personality: her off-hand anecdotes and observations about frontier life, her rock-solid moralistic views, and her eccentric thoughts on such things as the nature of cats, the inferiority of Fort Smith, Arkansas to Little Rock (even though the city’s houses are “numbered”), or the soundness of the doctrine of Election. I’d be far more interested in seeing the new cinematic version if I were told it utilized a voice-over throughout, the distinctive voice of Mattie Ross, as conceived and flawlessly rendered by Charles Portis, surely one of America’s most underrated novelists.    

Michael Carbert