Writing Advice: Writing is hard

Writing is hard—it’s a form of punishment in school, and rightly so—and I stood paralyzed before all the different ways this simple message might be put.

Jimmy Burns, narrator in Charles Portis’ Gringos

Finished a re-read of Gringos this week. If you are looking to get into Portis True Grit is the right starting place but Gringos is the right ending place. I’ve written about my love of Portis before – he is a great American novelist and novelist of America (although I confess I have never been able to get through Masters of Atlantis, which seems to me to just be a bad book).

Gringos is a book about many things, and one of the things it is about is writing and communication and miscommunication. There are articles in crackpot magazines, mysterious anonymous messages, indecipherable Mayan inscriptions, problems in translation etc. Writers don’t come out so well in it (“Bollard lived on the top floor of the Napoles Apartments and wrote novels. Of the grim modern kind, if I can read faces. I hadn’t read his books. My fear was that they might not be quite as bad as I wanted them to be.”) and part of the delight is that the critique occurs in such a brilliantly written novel.

Charles Portis and Chekov’s Gun

Charles Portis’ Dog of the South has a sort of Arkansan Wodehouse vibe to it (this is not a slam, I think Wodehouse is a comic genius). While I like comic novels (I will fight for comic Dickens as the best Dickens) I am not usually a “laugh out loud” sort of reader, more of an amused half-smirk sort of reader. But, when Dr. Reo Symes, defending the unjustly overlooked salesman/writer of With Wings as Eagles (one John Selmer Dix, MA) states that “Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse” I found myself, yes, laughing out loud (later: “He said that all other writing, compared to Dix’s work, was just ‘foul grunting'”). But, while I appreciated Dog of the South, I liked it a little less than Gringos, which I also read earlier this year (I read True Grit a few years ago, and loved it). There are a lot of common threads between Dog of the South and Gringos – a distinctive voice (Portis’ superpower), a south-of-the-border setting, lots of talk about proper maintenance of one’s vehicle, and wandering, slightly off-kilter, southern, male narrators – so I wanted to think through why I liked one more than the other.

It may seem strange to compare Wodehouse’s Edwardian-dreamland country house comedies with a story of a man chasing after his stolen car and unfaithful wife through Central America in the early 1970s, but the comparison is not too far fetched. Ray Midge, hapless protagonist trapped in a state of arrested development (“I had accumulated enough hours over the years for at least two bachelors’ degrees but I had never actually taken one”) is the southern American cousin to Bertie Wooster, the perpetually youthful narrator of Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves stories (although Ray’s familial wealth is received in the form of an American Express card and Ford Torino from his father). Just as in Wodehouse, Dog of the South is filled with verbal fireworks and most of the action is to be found in the conversation between characters. The difference is that the dialogues take place in a 1963 Buick Special on a dirt road in Belize rather than in the drawing room of a country house and are punctuated by exchanges regarding the development plans for a private island in Louisiana (“How about a theme park? Jefferson Davis Land … Every afternoon at three Lee would take off his gray coat and wrestle an alligator in a mud hole”) rather than discussions of who is marrying whom among Bertie’s numerous upper-class friends and relations. There’s even a stand-in for Wodehouse’s abundance of aunts, in the form of two elderly missionaries, Nell Symes and Melba, who run the Unity Tabernacle mission in Belize (“This remarkable lady had psychic gifts and she had not slept for three years, or so they told me. She sat up in a chair every night in the dark drinking coffee.”).

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