Jay Jennings’ invaluable Charles Portis collection “Escape Velocity” must have finally been published in the U.K., because the reviews are rolling in and, though universally positive, they sure can get strange. I’m sure the editor is to blame for this one, but the headline for The Spectator’s review is particularly noxious: “There’s so much mystery around Charles Portis that we’re not even clear whether he’s alive.” Journalism, etc.
This rehashing of the Portis-as-Deep-South-Salinger trope seems like a good opportunity to highlight one of the most fascinating inclusions in Jennings’ book, a lengthy interview with Portis by his onetime Arkansas Gazette colleague (a Southern journalism icon in his own right) Roy Reed that was conducted in 2001 as part of an oral history project organized by the University of Arkansas’ Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. That’s 2001. The inescapable conclusion here is that Portis hardly vanished, he just didn’t particularly want to talk to any of the people who wanted to talk to him.
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The interview, which you can and should find online if you don’t already have a copy of the book, focuses extensively on his early journalism days, from his brief stints at the Arkansas Traveler and the Northwest Arkansas Times to his storied couple of years at the Arkansas Gazette. In college he’d drive to work, “in my 1950 Chevrolet convertible, with the vertical radio in the dash and the leaking top. The Chevrolets of that period had a gearshift linkage that was always locking up, usually in second gear. I would have to stop at least once on the way to work —- raise the hood and pop it loose by hand.”
He came to journalism honestly: “You had to choose a major, so I put down journalism. I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college — not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.”
Here at the Times it’s hard not to take his depressing comparison between old and modern newsrooms personally: “Yes, they’re pretty sad places [now]. Quiet, lifeless. No big Underwood typewriters clacking away. No milling about, no chatting, no laughing, no smoking. That old loose, collegial air is long gone from the newsrooms. “A locker room air,” I suppose, would be the negative description. We wore coats and ties, and the reporters now wear jeans, and yet they’re the grim ones.”
We also get some great stories from his time in New York working with Tom Wolfe and Lewis Lapham and holding court at local bars. Here’s his modest account of an arm-wrestling match: “We were sitting at the table, a few of us from the Tribune. Dennis Duggan, me, Warren Berry, I think. Maybe Penny Brown. And this fellow from The Times, who was a stranger to me. He wanted to arm-wrestle, and as I recall, he kept challenging me. So we went at it, and there was a pop. His arm broke. Very strange. He went into a kind of swoon, and it was Dennis, I think, who took him off to a hospital, somewhere down there near Sheridan Square. It was just a freakish thing. A weak bone or something.”