Charles Portis, Elusive Author of ‘True Grit,’ Dies at 86


Between 1979 and 1991, Mr. Portis published three more novels, “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). Like his first two, they relied on deadpan humor, oddball characters and occasional bursts of melodrama.

In “The Dog of the South,” the narrator, Ray Midge, drives to Mexico from Little Rock, Ark., in pursuit of his wife, who has run off with her first husband and Ray’s Ford Torino. In “Masters of Atlantis,” two men found a sect based on wisdom from the lost city of Atlantis. And in “Gringos” an American expat in Mexico gets involved with U.F.O. enthusiasts and archaeologists searching for a lost Mayan city.

All were reissued in paperback in 1999 and 2000 by the Overlook Press after Esquire magazine ran an article by Ron Rosenbaum proclaiming Mr. Portis America’s “least-known great writer.”

“Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face,” Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times in 2010. “The trick of his books,” he added, is that “they pretend to be serious.”

He went on, “In one way or another the subtext of all these novels is the great Melvillean theme of the American weakness for secret conspiracies and arcane knowledge, and our embrace of con men, scam artists and flimflammers of every sort.”

In his later years Mr. Portis produced a sparse collection of magazine articles, notably for his Arkansas friend William Whitworth, the longtime editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also wrote a few short stories for The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Oxford American.

Jay Jennings, an Arkansas writer and friend, compiled a collection of Mr. Portis’s work that included excerpts from his newspaper reporting on civil rights during the early 1960s. It also included a short memoir, “Combinations of Jacksons,” and a three-act play, “Delray’s New Moon.” The collection, “Escape Velocity,” was published in 2012 by Butler Center Books in Little Rock.

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