Last night, the Porter Fund hosted a $200-per-ticket gala to celebrate the Arkansas-born novelist Charles Portis, who was not in attendance. The Fund, started by authors Phillip McMath and Jack Butler in 1984, presents a Lifetime Achievement Award to an Arkansas author every five years, and this year they chose the author of “Norwood,” “True Grit,” “The Dog of the South,” “Masters of Atlantis” and “Gringos,” all of which were on sale at a table display in the foyer of the Governor’s Mansion when I arrived at 6 p.m.
A tornado watch was in effect as the guests showed up. “In Arkansas, a gala isn’t really a gala without a tornado,” as Roy Blount, Jr. would put it later in the evening. The mansion itself was extremely clean, full of large mirrors and extravagant light fixtures (I wrote this down: “great light fixtures”). To get to the banquet hall, we walked down a carpeted staircase embroidered with the names of every Arkansas governor who has lived in the building, from Beebe, Huckabee and Tucker down to Faubus, Cherry, McMath. Incidentally, Sid McMath, 34th Governor of this state, was also the father of Phillip, the Fund’s co-founder and the host of the night’s event.
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Did you know that Charles Portis’s nickname is Buddy? I didn’t know that, but from the very first speech of the night, Buddy was the only name used by anyone at the podium. Phillip McMath opened the ceremony with a long and bizarre talk, part history of the Porter Fund’s founding and part memoir of his time growing up in the Governor’s Mansion. He showed some childhood photos on the overhead projector, snapshots of himself as a toddler palling around with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and President Truman. He gave a wildly hyperbolic endorsement of “Buddy” Portis’s genius that had something to do with aliens and Mark Twain, and made a series of nearly unintelligible jokes about his father having “six murderers on staff” when he ran the state.
Next, as dinner was being served, they screened a half-hour film consisting entirely of interviews with previous Porter Fund winners and affiliates (like co-founder Jack Butler, the great and eccentric author of the improbably Pultizer Prize-nominated “Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock”). The last Lifetime Achievement Award winner, poet Miller Williams, read one of his poems, “An Unrhymed Sonnet,” in the video, and the effect was eerie. “If life began with God, did God have a beginning?” he asked, as they distributed plates of peach cobbler. “I shouldn’t ask these questions here,” he continued. “Please — just go ahead and cut my hair.”
State Senator Bobby Pierce, who it seems very likely has never read any Charles Portis, spoke after the film, invoking the names of novels Portis never wrote (e.g. “The Dogs of Summer”) and quoting John Wayne from the original “True Grit” film adaptation a little too eagerly. Senator Pierce, like McMath before him, also saluted the various politicians in the room individually, congratulating them on their attendance to the worthy event.
And then something great happened: Jay Jennings, author of “Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City,” and the editor of “Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany,” took the stage and gave a genuinely moving speech about his long friendship with Portis, a mentor to Jennings early on and throughout his career. “Imagine you were an aspiring writer in Little Rock,” he began. “You had a Masters degree and you were kind of an asshole.” We learn that Jennings wrote to Portis when the older author lived in the same apartment complex as Jennings’ parents. That they spent years drinking together at the Town Pump and the Faded Rose. That Portis wrote him a letter of recommendation to an MFA program that was unsuccessful. Jennings read the letter Portis wrote him after learning of the rejection, one of the night’s more solemn and powerful moments. He quoted Mattie Ross, narrator of “True Grit”: “Time just gets away from us.”
The journalist Roy Reed, a longtime Southern correspondent for the New York Times, was scheduled to speak next, and I was thrilled about this. I’d spent the last few nights reading Reed’s memoir, “Beware of Limbo Dancers,” and was looking forward to hearing from him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it. McMath explained that “his headlights weren’t working.” Someone else read Reed’s prepared remarks. “We all got drunk together,” he wrote of his time working with Portis at the Arkansas Gazette. Apparently they’d shared a telephone line, and he’d sometimes overheard the novelist’s conversations. “I often had the impression,” he wrote, “that he led a much more interesting life than I did.” He also revealed that Joann the Wonder Hen, the “College Educated Chicken” that makes an appearance in “Norwood,” was based on an actual chicken that Portis had encountered “one drunken evening in Hot Springs.”
Roy Blount, Jr. spoke next and began with an entertainingly digressive and freewheeling string of anecdotes, some involving Portis and some not. “I’ve done things at night that I don’t remember,” he said at one point, before telling a story about accidentally falling asleep on a complimentary motel mint. He quoted Meryl Streep and remembered a chaotic New York Public Library event, at which Portis may or may not have been present. He then offered a rambling and deceptively brilliant analysis of Portis’s literary output, complete with telling quotations from each one of his books. He laughed at the minor but perceptive moments in Portis’s descriptions, particularly enjoying the phrases “vitamins for men” and “hail-damaged pears.” He quoted “Gringos” with very little context, but made it clear he was speaking about the author himself: “Being a facetious person I got no credit for any depth of feeling.”
After an excerpt that, judging by the ambient crowd response, may have gone on a little too long, he concluded: “There’s probably only one author of good fiction in America who you’d call if your car broke down, and that’s Charles Portis,” he said. “You wouldn’t call Edgar Allen Poe.”
Portis’s brother Jonathan took the microphone next and accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award on his brother’s behalf. He thanked us all for coming and pointed out each of the family members and close friends in the crowd. He was fighting back tears as he left the stage, at which point, in a gesture that seemed almost unbelievably crass, someone took over the podium to loudly and aggressively auction off two first edition copies of “True Grit.” I think it was for a good cause, but it was also jarring. He held up the books and said proudly and morbidly, “These might be the last two books Portis ever autographs.” The first went for $650, the second for a little more.
McMath then saw Governor Beebe at the back of the room and called him down. I didn’t get the impression the governor had intended to speak; it was more like he just happened to be passing by on his way to bed and noticed a huge banquet being held in his living room. McMath asked him to say goodnight to the crowd, and he assented: “I can say goodnight easy.” The crowd was clearly excited by this development, and the governor gamely improvised an impressively convincing speech about the significance of the state’s “literary giants.”
“I never met John Wayne,” said the governor at one point. “But I recently shared the stage with Jeff Bridges.”