"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Deadpan Funny

More on Charles Portis. Here’s Charles McGrath, writing in the New York Times:

“True Grit,” Mr. Portis’s second novel, which was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks, is actually a divisive matter among Portis admirers. There are some, like the novelist Donna Tartt, who consider it his masterpiece, a work comparable to “Huckleberry Finn.” Others, like Mr. Rosenbaum, resent “True Grit” a little for detracting attention from Mr. Portis’s lesser-known but arguably funnier books: “Norwood” (1966), “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). The writer Roy Blount Jr., an old friend of Mr. Portis’s, suggested recently that Mr. Portis himself was a little embarrassed by the success of “True Grit.”

…What the other novels have in common with “True Grit” is their deadpan quality. Most comic novels — think of anything by P. G. Wodehouse, say, or Ring Lardner — are fairly transparent: they unabashedly try to be funny and let the reader in on the joke. The trick of Mr. Portis’s books, especially the ones told in the first person, is that they pretend to be serious.

…Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.

Man, is there anything harder than writing funny? Look at sports writing, for example. How many humorists do we have? Hell, forget humorists, how many funny writers are there? Charles Pierce has a sense of humor and so does Pat Jordan. Richard Hoffer has a sly and subtle wit but he’s not around much these days. Closer to home, Emma has the rare gift of being funny without seeming to strain to get a laugh. Jay Jaffe and Steve Goldman can come up with some choice zingers, ditto for Repoz over at the Think Factory. Not easy, though.


1 Bruce Markusen   ~  Dec 21, 2010 9:09 am

Speaking of funny people, Steve Landesberg of Barney Miller fame passed away yesterday at age 65. Simply a brilliant and underrated comedian.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Dec 21, 2010 9:23 am

I saw that. Sad news.

3 Chyll Will   ~  Dec 21, 2010 9:59 am

Yet for every Emma and Jay, there's an equally unfunny Mike Lupica and Bill Madden who alone think they're funny, but nevertheless get too much spread.

I get it, writing funny is really hard (says the guy who writes jokes here as though he's either flying a crop-duster in outer-space or leading cows through a pasture filled with landmines), though probably the most rewarding if you do get people laughing; I live paycheck-to-paycheck, so damned if I know...

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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