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Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany Hardcover – October 1, 2012
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-John Powers, NPR's "Fresh Air"
"I tore through Escape Velocity and then went back and read most of the works again, because they are that compelling."
-Alex Balk, The Awl
"The overviews, tributes, and selections from Portis's work make this book just right for any reader.... His satire sings without condescension. ... He's a kind of American Chaucer."
--Clyde Edgerton, Garden & Gun
"Escape Velocity is a major Portis event."
--Alex Heard, The New Republic
"Jay Jennings has done a great service in putting together Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany and providing it with an excellent introduction and appreciation.... Delray's New Moon, the single example here of Portis as a dramatist, is a wonderful black comedy and tour de force of inspired dialog."
--Katherine A. Powers, The Barnes & Noble Review
--Carlo Rotella, The New York Times Book Review
"The book's introduction, which notes the hallmarks of Mr. Portis's brand of humor without talking them to death, provides an ideal primer for readers coming to Mr. Portis fresh.... His newspaper writing is as richly textured as any of the New Journalism that emerged in the 1960s but with none of the fireworks that betray the writer's effort at innovation."
--Wes Davis, Wall Street Journal
"The comparison [with Mark Twain] is apt -- more than for any other writer I can think of, including Kurt Vonnegut and H. L. Mencken."
--Maud Newton, The New York Times
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The pieces in this collection go a long way towards making the case that Portis is one of the great men of letters in American literature post-1945, with a keen ear for sayings and characters that most other people might miss (or dismiss) entirely. The non-fiction pieces in particular are revelatory: Portis earned his stripes as a journalist, and here we see him covering the death of Elvis' mother while picking up on the nuances of the moment (how Elvis had to balance his private grief with his public obligations, not just to his fans but to the Army into which he was drafted). I was hesitant about the short fiction pieces: Portis' novels contain such fantastical moments that often times they need the space that a novel provides to give them weight, and I worried that short fiction might reveal the man behind the curtain, in a sense, as not being the same at the great novelist whose works I'd read and enjoyed previously. But not to fret: the short fiction, while not being up to the same standards as his longform work, is sparkling with intelligence and wit. I did skip over the play included in this volume, however (I do plan to return to it some day), as well as the long interview towards the end. I wanted to save some Portis for another day, as I've read all his novels and didn't want to necessarily come to the end of his published work.
The section I read first, actually, wasn't written by Portis at all: the appendix contains testimonials (essays, book reviews, etc.) about Portis and his work, by some famous fans. I heartily recommend it, as Portis is the most often-cited "neglected American novelist" of the recent past, and to such an extent that his status is more solid now than it was beforehand. All of his work (the novels, not just "True Grit" but lesser-known works like "The Dog of the South" and "Norwood") have been republished, and Portis has a stature in American literature not afforded to him prior to the turn of the century. The essays and reviews help give the neophyte Portis reader an appreciation for what his work has meant and will continue to mean as time goes on.
Charles Portis could have been Cormac McCarthy, (as Roy Blount Jr. says), but he'd rather be funny (and use quotation marks to seperate his dialogue from the other text, I should point out). Thank goodness that he did decide that years ago. He may be a recluse, but he's said plenty in his work (the novels and the pieces collected here). If you're already a fan, this is a welcome addition to your shelf. If you're a newbie, this might not be the place to start, but it doesn't hurt to help get a sense of what Charles Portis does. He does it very well, and he has done it often enough to be an American treasure.
He wrote five novels, all of which are revered in different orders of preference by his ardent fans. Perhaps a main reason for this is simply that they are funny. Not just funny, as in amusing, but laugh out loud funny. I say this obviously as one who finds his writing singularly appealing. There is a quirky exactness in the dialogue and descriptions which is his alone, and makes this reader feel fortunate to have encountered his books.
I'm not saying this will apply to every reader across the board. But I can't think of one other author, alive or dead, who consistently makes me laugh. I was finishing this book in bed the other night and my wife was having trouble falling asleep amid the snorts and other bursts of suppressed laughter I couldn't keep inside. I probably should have left the room.
Which brings me to Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. The title comes from a line spoken by the main character in his third novel, The Dog of the South: "A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can't quite achieve escape velocity.”
Since there have been no other books of his published after the novels, this collection is like water to a desert crawler. Yes, it's a mixed bag - reportage, stories, a play, a bit of memoir, travel - but for those who have read the novels, it's all we have to ingest now and for that reason it's a treasure of sustenance.
If you don't know Portis, you've probably heard of True Grit. Don't for a second think the movies based on this novel define its true quality, certainly not the John Wayne film of 1969, nor even the recent and much improved Coen brothers version. Neither of these can touch the novel, not by a mile. It's simply an American Classic, and the only one of the five novels that's not more or less contemporary. It followed Norwood, his first novel, which can serve as your litmus test if you want to try Portis. If he suits you, go from there. None will disappoint you.
Anyway, I hope my point is clear. Read Portis, an absolutely unique American treasure.