Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.
The Wide World of Southern Literature
Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany edited by Jay Jennings
(Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, October 2012)
“A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity,” Charles Portis wrote in his third novel, The Dog of The South. Escape velocity is the projectile force required to send a bullet from a supergun (for instance) fast and far enough that it will break free of gravity and orbit around space rather than return to Earth; it is also the name of the new collection of “Charles Portis miscellany,” edited by Arkansan Jay Jennings.
In the editor’s forward, Jennings talks about a file he began filling with Portis ephemera in 1984, including short stories he clipped from The Atlantic and The OA, reviews, and “best-of” lists that included one or any combination of Portis’s five novels: Norwood (1966), True Grit (1968), The Dog of The South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos (1991). NPR’s Garrison Keillor chose Masters of Atlantis as one of his five favorite funny novels. Wells Tower wrote about Gringos for a GQ column on a novel that changed his life. Critic Ron Rosenbaum called Portis “Our least-known great novelist” and set out to change that “least-known” bit in a 1998 essay for Esquire. Escape Velocity is a peek into the Jennings file and more, and while it may omit “best of” enumerations alone (Garrison Keillor’s list does not make the cut), it does allow tributes, a brief memoir, a previously unpublished play (Delray’s New Moon, a portion of which also appeared in The OA this fall), a collection of travelogues, and many fantastic essays and articles from Portis’s days as a reporter.
Ed Park, a founding editor of The Believer, wrote one of the tributes that appears in the Miscellany. Published in The Believer in 2003 and titled “Like Cormac McCarthy, but Funny,” it opens grandiosely: “Charles Portis, author of True Grit, got John Wayne his only Oscar. He once had Karl Marx’s old gig (as the London bureau chief for the New York Herald Tribune). He’s written four other novels, three of them masterpieces, though which three is up for debate.”
The collection hinges on the acceptance of Portis’s genius and will probably be most appreciated by those already familiar with Portis. I hadn’t read a single work by Portis prior to his nomination for The Oxford American’s 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award. I am from a family of readers. Two of my best friends are from El Dorado, Arkansas (where Portis was born and lived as a boy), and I lived in Little Rock at the time, where people “saw him around” and, if particularly astute, commented on it. But I had missed out on Portis’s writings, for whatever reason. His name meant “Like Cormac McCarthy” to me, which was not a great or accurate endorsement because “Like Cormac McCarthy, but Funny” is, in fact, not like Cormac McCarthy. Or anyone else.
Moments of illuminating consistency weave together Portis’s experiences with those of his characters, a delightful result of collecting his work in this way. Take his first novel, Norwood, which chronicles the life of ex-Marine Norwood Pratt. Norwood gives up a respectable job in a hometown auto-repair shop to chase a debt from Ralph, Texas, all the way to New York City. In February of 1966, the same year Norwood was released, Portis wrote a cover story for The Saturday Evening Post on “That New Sound from Nashville”—country music, of course—which is slipped into Escape Velocity’s “Travels” section. In 1966, Portis had to give Loretta Lynn a written introduction so that readers of The Post would know who she was. The Opry—one of the most famous launching pads for American singers—and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge—one of the most iconic bars in the country—required explanation.
Of the music, he writes:
Sometimes it’s called “hillbilly music, which is only half accurate, because the southern lowlanders have contributed just as much as the hill folks, perhaps more; and sometimes “country and western,” which is misleading because such of it as reflects the culture west of Abilene, Tex., tends to be pretty thin stuff. “Southern white working-class music” would never do as a tag, but that’s what it is.
And Norwood Pratt, hero of the road, appreciates that. He and the Opry boys and girls see the same things, like the same stuff.
From a radio ad mentioned in “That New Sound from Nashville”: “Send your card or letter to Baby Chicks! That’s Baby Chicks! Sorry, no guarantee of sex, breed or color.”
And from Norwood:
Inside a station on a bench some mail-order baby chicks were cheeping away in a perforated box. Bargain chicks. No guarantee of sex, breed, or color.
Norwood’s life can be read next to other pieces found in Escape Velocity, too: a short story about a caged-up ex-military man that first appeared in The Atlantic called “I Don’t Talk Service No More”; and from the brief memoir, “Combinations of Jacksons,” the sort of Arkansas that Norwood gets to visit when he finally finds the man who owes him money—the Arkansas not just of Norwood, but of True Grit. Portis’s newspaper columns contain the Arkansas of The Dog of The South, and, taken all together, Escape Velocity presents the land at the margins of almost all of Portis’s work.
Until their recent re-releases by The Overlook Press, it was hard to come by Portis’s novels. All but one were out of print when Rosenbaum wrote the Esquire piece in 1999. Rosenbaum bemoaned the impossibility of finding Masters of Atlantis. After bedeviling years that forced Portis fans to turn to used-bookstore stakeouts, Portis’s novels have begun, over the last decade or so, to appear on shelves again. In 2010, True Grit was (once again) made into an Academy-Award winning movie. More folks have lately begun to count themselves members of the Charles Portis Appreciation Club, or the Portis Society, as Rosenbaum called it in his Esquire essay. Portis was honored with that Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to Southern Literature at that 2010 Oxford American Best of the South Gala, and a few months ago, my sister stopped in a Barnes & Noble on her way home and walked out with a present for me: Masters of Atlantis.
That New Sound from Nashville
The cover story of the Saturday Evening Post from February 12, 1966, featured a photograph of Roger Miller. Portis, the contributors’ page states, “has written a comic novel that will be published this year by Simon & Schuster”; portions of that novel, Norwood, about the travels and travails of the would-be country star Norwood Pratt, were published in two installments in the Post in June and July of 1966.
Nashville, the Athens of the South, is home to Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and at least half a dozen other colleges, as well as a symphony orchestra, a concrete replica of the Parthenon and a downtown beer joint called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Tootsie’s is where the country-music people hang out—those who don’t object to beer joints. It has a very active jukebox and shaky tables, and there are 8-by-10 glossies all over the wall and a clutter of small-bore merchandise be hind the counter—stuff like gum, beef sticks and headache powder. The hostess is Tootsie Bess, a motherly, aproned woman who doesn’t mind noise or a certain amount of rowdiness, but whose good nature has its limits. One night a drunk song-writer addressed Maggie, the cook, as “nigger,” and Tootsie threw him out and banned him. She has three cigar boxes full of I.O.U.’s.
On Saturday nights, performers on the Grand Ole Opry step out the stage door and cross an alley and go in the back door of Tootsie’s to get aholt of themselves between sets with some refreshing suds. Songwriters—“cleffers,” as the trade mags say—sit around and chat and wait for artistic revelations. Deals are closed there. New, strange guitar licks are conceived.
Roger Miller (King of the Road), the antic poet who was too far out to have any success on the Opry itself, was singing and clowning in Tootsie’s back room years ago, for free. “He wrote Dang Me right here in this booth,” says Tootsie. But his rates are stiffer now. He just did a special for NBC-TV and is talking with them about starring in a series next year.
“Yeah, Roger’s doing all right,” says a Nashville business associate. “He was in here the other day with a quarter of a million dollars in his pocket. It was two checks.”
Tootsie’s is like a thousand other beer joints in the South with such names as Junior’s Dew Drop Inn and Pearl’s Howdy Club, and a certain type of country boy feels right at home there, whether he has $250,000 in his pocket or just came in on the bus from Plain Dealing, La., with a guitar across his back and white cotton socks rolled down in little cylinders atop his grease-resistant work shoes. And a song in his heart about teardrops, adultery, diesel trucks.
This is the milieu of commercial country music, the Southern honkytonk. Sometimes it’s called “hillbilly music,” which is only half accurate, be cause the southern lowlanders have contributed just as much as the hill folks, perhaps more; and sometimes “country and western,” which is mis leading because such of it as reflects the culture west of Abilene, Tex., tends to be pretty thin stuff. “Southern white working-class music” would never do as a tag, but that’s what it is. By any name, country music is prospering, and so is Nashville’s recording industry, which now does a brisk non-country trade. Perry Como, hitless for almost two years, packed a carpetbag re cently and went to Nashville and came back with a hit single, Dream On, Little Dreamer, by two country-music writers, and a hit album, The Scene Changes. The golf was good too, he says. Both RCA Victor and Columbia have built big new studios there in the past year, and all sorts of un likely people—Al Hirt, Ann-Margret—are going there to record. Elvis Presley always has.
It is odd in a way that the country-music busi ness should have settled in Nashville, instead of in a rougher, rawer town like, say, Shreveport. (Shreveport does have a lesser version of the Opry called “The Louisiana Hayride.”) Nashville is an old town (1780), a state capital, a college town, and a headquarters town for southern churches.
There are some 200,000 people in the city proper. It is a pleasant, green, genteel, residential place on the banks of the Cumberland River in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee. Nashville once had poets like Sidney Lanier and Allen Tate, and now it has Ernest Tubb and doesn’t quite know what to do with him, except ignore him. Few country singers manage to get themselves taken seriously in Nashville. Eddy Arnold is a big community man, and he is being discussed as a Democratic nominee for governor next year. Roy Acuff ran for governor as a Republican, unsuccess fully. But generally, the Athenians of the South go one way, and the country-music people another. Less than 10 percent of the Opry audiences come from the Nashville area. Middle-class Nashvillians, anxious lest they be mistaken for rubes, are quick to inform the visitor that they have never attended the show. It is not for them, this hoedown. They long for road-company presentations of socko Broadway comedies. Even radio station WSM, which carries the Opry, is not really a country-music station. “Oh, no,” says Ott Devine, WSM’s Opry manager. “Except for the Opry and a few record shows we’re a good music station.”
But settle there the business has, and it now brings in some $60 million a year to the town. From the Opry it has grown into a complex of 10 recording studios, 26 record companies, and a colony of 700 cleffers, 265 music publishers, and 1,000 union musicians, about half of whom can read music with some facility. Nashville has replaced Chicago as the country’s third-busiest recording center, after New York and Hollywood, and is probably ahead of Hollywood, says RCA Victor vice president Steve Sholes, “in the pro duction of successful single records.” The main reason is that it has developed its own style, what outsiders call “The Nashville Sound.” Nobody wants to define it, but it amounts to country music with a dash of Tin Pan Alley, in the form of noncountry instruments like drums and trombones.
The music, in its present form, is not really very old. It is a blend of British balladry, American folk songs, 19th-century Protestant hymns, Negro blues and gospel songs, southern-white themes and, now, a touch of northern pop. There were im portant pioneers in the early 1920’s such as Vernon Dalhart (“If I had the wings of an angel…”) but for most practical purposes the music dates from 1927 when Jimmie Rodgers made his first record (Victor) for a goldback $20 bill.
Rodgers was The Blue Yodeler, The Singing Brakeman. He was a consumptive drifter from Meridian, Miss., who, in a span of six years, established commercial country music as a distinct new form. He was not quite 36 years old when he coughed himself to death in a New York hotel room in 1933. At the end he was so wasted and weakened with tuberculosis that he had to lie on a cot while recording at Victor’s 24th Street studio in New York. He left a legacy of 112 songs, many of them classics like My Carolina Sunshine Gal, I’m in the Jailhouse Now, and
I’m goin’ to town, honey,
What you want me to bring you back?
Bring me a pint of booze
And a John B. Stetson hat….
With a strong assist from The Carter Family (Wildwood Flower, Wabash Cannon Ball) Rodgers set the pattern for the music, and the Grand Ole Opry formalized it and gave it a home. The Opry is the mother church. Actually this show predates Rodgers’s recording career by two years, but in the beginning it was only a fiddler’s show, and it wasn’t until later that it took on its present form as a singin’ and pickin’ jamboree.