When Portis Met Salinger

 

DID YOU HEAR they captured Bigfoot? A few weeks ago, somewhere in the bowels of Texas they supposedly killed and autopsied and froze the most mysterious creature of our time.

Yippee.

I guess that’s all well and good, except it overshadowed even more important recluse-discovering news. A story that failed to spark America’s attention because of some seven-foot ape. I speak, of course, about how I bagged the literary world’s Bigfoot: Charles Portis.

According to reports, Rick Dyer lured the Sasquatch into a trap by nailing BBQ ribs to a tree out in the woods. (Pro Tip: also an effective way to capture novelists.) Well, strike up the band. While those creepy, myth-busting photos went viral around the internet, the world ignored the tale of how I never even left the house to snag my prey. I became the fiction community’s preeminent big game hunter simply by watching that JD Salinger documentary, Salinger.

Much like his cryptid soul brother, the hermetic Portis has been stalking the dark woods of society (also known as Little Rock, Arkansas) for years, sporadically popping up to release a book every decade or so. Best known for the bestseller, True Grit, Portis has gone to great lengths to avoid attention. So, it is no surprise that most viewers missed the biggest Portis clue in years while sitting through two hours of Salinger pillow talk.

Portis, for the record, doesn’t appear onscreen. That wouldn’t be his style. Over the course of a five-decade career he has done exactly one interview. According to the New York Times, Charles Portis, “doesn’t use e-mail, has an unlisted phone number, declines interview requests, including one for this article, and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program.” Sounds suspiciously like our friend, Harry, from Harry and the Hendersons, don’t you think?

Sure, Portis doesn’t have the recluse reputation of Salinger or Thomas Pynchon or the Yeti. But his kooky body of work, five novels and a collection of nonfiction, has earned a fascinating cult following that includes Conan O’Brien and the Coen Brothers as devotees. Since publishing his debut, Norwood, in 1966, literary cryptozoologists have struggled for a hair sample, a muddy footprint, or even a grainy 8mm home movie of Portis lumbering through the forest. He’s about as elusive as Benno von Archimboldi in Bolano’s 2666, being stalked by four literary critics who stake their careers around trying – and failing – to find him.

Well, search no longer, folks. Here is the story you will be telling your grandkids. Here is the play-by-play of how I dragged Mr. Bashful into the daylight. Here is the barroom legend that will surely score me free drinks from MFA students across the country.

It was midway through Salinger when I nailed my figurative BBQ ribs to a tree and loaded my hunting rifle. Around the one-hour mark the clouds parted, the sun beamed down, and America’s most-reclusive author was uncovered by America’s least-reclusive author.

You guessed it, fellow hunters: Tom Wolfe.

Wolfe—decked out in his customary white suit and bottomless charisma—was a prominent talking head during Salinger. Sandwiched between several JD anecdotes, was a flicker of film most viewers forgot. Wolfe’s eyes lit up:

“One time, Charlie Portis told me he was on a plane and he sat behind this great tall man. He looked at the man as he settled into his seat, wondering, Is that? Could it be him?

“Charlie went on doing whatever it was he was doing. But then another man sits across the aisle from this tall gentleman. ‘Why, Jerry Salinger, is that you?’ the new man asks as they take off.

“And, by god, it was JD Salinger.

“‘What have you been up to?’ this man asks Salinger.

“Well, at this time Charlie wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune, and like any good reporter he is furiously taking notes as Salinger begins filling this man in on his life.

“After the flight, Charlie walks up to Salinger and says something like, ‘Mr. Salinger, my name is Charles Portis, I am a reporter for the Herald-Tribune…’ and Salinger’s eyes get huge. He starts begging Charlie not to say a word.

“Well, you know what Charlie did? Sitting atop the scoop of the century, he crumbles up the notes and throws them away!”

And then, zip, the film began dissecting the blueprints of Salinger’s cinderblock writing bunker or something. I don’t remember because I was too stunned. Here was the book world equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster and Yeti sharing a taxi. It was a moment to be savored by Portis hunters around the world.

By now you probably have heard all the Salinger bombshells—he secretly kept writing for decades, had a thing for teen girls, the War inflicted some serious mental instability on old JD. So, if you watch this documentary for no other reason, watch it for Wolfe’s brief story. This is likely the clearest window into Portis’ world we will ever get. Trashing those notes was an act of mercy and respect that few individuals have the stomach for. It speaks volumes about Portis’ big heart, but also sketches a curious chicken and egg scenario for Portis-seekers.

Was Charles Portis a privacy-lover before this flight?

I don’t think so. Consider how Nora Ephron once waxed nostalgic: “Charlie was just charming, the life of the party almost.” This leads Portis scholars to assume the memory of Salinger’s shellshocked eyes returned when fame knocked on Portis’ door. It seems impossible that his Salinger interaction didn’t make at least some impact. Just how big a payload we can’t say.

At the very least this Salinger snippet is a mix of lunacy, happenstance and grace fit for a Portis novel. Now that I have had this tale taxidermied everyone can wonder whether we’ve uncovered a little of the mystery surrounding literature’s Bigfoot. If you don’t know him, Portis is a genius well worth the hunt. No BBQ ribs required.

 

About Patrick Wensink

Patrick Wensink (@patrickwensink) is the author of the bestselling novel Broken Piano for President and the essay collection Everything Was Great Until it Sucked. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon and many less-reputable sources. He lives in Louisville, KY.
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