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True Grit

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”Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” that this is the most famous line Charles Portis has written causes grief among the Arkansas novelist’s cult band of followers. John Wayne immortalized it as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, the 1969 Western that he rode, reins in teeth, to his only Oscar. The quote comes straight from Portis’ overshadowed 1968 novel of the same name (Overlook, $13.95), a classic revenge oater that’s less about Rooster than Mattie Ross, the mule-headed 14-year-old narrator who recruits the trigger-happy gunslinger to kill the varmint who shot her father. Mattie is a Portis specialty — a dogged eccentric whose bratty unlovability never veers into grotesquerie, no matter how heavy things get. Even as she bears witness to jolting violence, she remains one of the truest of amusing teenage prima donnas in fiction. Walker Percy and Donna Tartt hold Mattie up to Huck Finn, while journalist Ron Rosenbaum compares Portis to Mark Twain in an essay that helped spark reissues of all five Portis novels. This is the last of those, capping a body of work as powerful as a killer lightning bolt, like the one that crumples a flying pelican right before the unbelieving narrator’s eyes in The Dog of the South, True Grit’s even-better successor.