From: The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - Sunday Octocber 21, 2012
By Paul Greenberg
LITTLE ROCK —
“A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”—Charles Portis, Dog of the South
Those are the lucky ones, the Arkies/Arkansawyers who can’t ever make it out of this small, wonderfully interconnected planetary system called Arkansas. Or are drawn back into it by some inexorable force. Call it fate or failure or necessity or whatever you like if you’re one of those folks embarrassed by any mention of the will of God.
Sooner or later these blessed souls come home and settle in as one of the minor satellites making their appointed rounds, having discovered or rediscovered their natural habitat, aka destiny. As for those who never make it back, call them Arkansans, which always did have an imported, artificial, yankeefied sound to it. They may spend the rest of their lives bound in by shallows and miseries. Strangers in a strange land.
They must tell themselves they’re happy, or at least successful, or at the very least cosmopolitan. But what they’ve found is their own private, pointless Hell, the most hellish aspect of which is that the poor souls may not realize it. Or can’t afford to admit it. They think it’s New York, New York. The big apple. Or some mini, bite-sized version thereof. They’re supposed to have made it. Never mind the absence they may be vaguely aware of down deep.
Much like other vegetation, the transplanted may not thrive in other than native soil, which is why it is necessary, when inserting them into inhospitable climes, to leave their roots intact, sustained by at least some of the nutrients that made them what they are, or used to be.
No wonder the surest instinct of those cast into the Southern diaspora is to seek out other Southerners, just to hear a soft word, a familiar tone, or feel the unspoken comfort of home and old times there not forgotten. Their ears perk up at the sound of a Southern accent across a crowded room. They grow nostalgic, that is, homesick for the past. Sometimes in the worst ways. The South can assume freakish proportions in their telling. Especially in the worst of the breed, the professional Southerner. Pitiful. If I encounter one more mezzotint in a New York drawing room of Lee and Jackson drawing up the order of battle for Chancellorsville with a stick in the middle of a dirt road . . . . Some of these lost souls finally make it home, where even the damned are welcomed like the prodigals they are. As if they’d never left. Think of Willie Morris, whose memoir and comic masterpiece, North Toward Home, is unimaginable without his having had a home that he was destined to return to after all his wandering and realize, like Jacob, that this place was holy and he knew it not. Those who never leave may never come to that realization, or at least not declare it openly, fearing they’ll sound unsophisticated. Others make poetry of it, or at least country songs. Hey porter! Hey porter! Would you tell me the time? How much longer will it be till we cross that Mason Dixon Line? . . . Hey porter! Hey porter! Please open up the door. When they stop the train I’m gonna get off first ’Cause I can’t wait no more. Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot, and I didn’t mind the fare. I’m gonna set my feet on Southern soil and breathe that Southern air. Naturally enough Buddy Portis came home to Arkansas, not that he ever left it in disposition. He had the good sense to stay a kind of Southerner—the best, unpretentious, slightly detached kind, even if he was elsewhere physically. Like in the London bureau of the New York Herald-Tribune. Oh, the glory that was the New York Times, the grandeur that was the Herald-Trib, the writer’s paper! Gone, gone forever short of some messianic resurrection of the dead. Unfortunately, the merely decadent may not qualify for revival. They no longer have a soul to revive.
But the self-exiled may return at any time, and walk in as though they’d never left. (“Haven’t seen you around lately. You been sick?”) Then they’ll sit down to throw off a masterpiece or two, like True Grit. And lesser works—Norwood, Dog of the South—that still tower above anything on the meager market today. Portis keeps on being discovered, or rather being periodically re-discovered. That’s the way it is with old friends and good writers.
Now we have a collection of Portis’ miscellany preserved, dished up under the title Escape Velocity, and emphasizing what long has needed emphasizing—his journalism.
As expected, Buddy Portis didn’t show for the book launch at the Butler Center here in Little Rock the other night. He’s a writer, not a celebrity. His appearance at the party would have been superfluous, maybe even in the way. His books were there. And the writing’s the thing.
Just don’t let the self-absorbed introductions and marginalia in this miscellany spoil the taste of Buddy Portis’ own dry vintage. Much of the commentary surrounding it can be pretty awful, self-absorbed stuff. (“I had read True Grit sometime in my teens . . . . The earliest inclusion in my Portis file . . . . The article was a review of my book and it began. . . .”) Skip ’em all. They annoy. They bring to mind the big-name politician who comes to town to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of some local notable: “I remember the first time I met dear old Joe. It was early in my brilliant career, when I . . . .” Embarassing. Or would be if the politician were capable of being embarrassed. But being a politician, he isn’t.
The wise reader will go straight to the selections from Portis himself—astringent, bracing, simple, sounding like stray thoughts jotted down in a casual moment as only the artfully and arduously made can. The charm of Charles Portis’ prose isn’t easy to describe and the attempt is better not made. Just read even the shortest snippet and you’ll smile. It may even save you from the snare and delusion called escape velocity.
Paul Greenberg is editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. E-mail him at:
Perspective, Pages 77 on 10/21/2012
Print Headline: Escape Velocity