A letter from Adapter Judd Parkin to the cast and designers of The Dog of the South.
I suppose in a roundabout way I owe my love of Charles Portis to John Wayne. Like a lot of people my age, I saw the Wayne version of True Grit when it was first released. Being a rabid movie enthusiast, I bought the tie-in book edition, but being a teenager with a short attention span I never bothered to actually read it.
My reading of True Grit took place many years later when I was visiting my mother and was hunting through her bookshelves for something to read. I noticed my old yellowing paperback and pulled it down and read the first paragraph, more out of curiosity than anything. It was one of those experiences that one gets all too rarely as a reader, where the sky cracks open and you enter another dimension.
I was riveted.
Why hadn’t anyone ever told me what a great book this was and what a great writer this Portis fellow was? The book of True Grit was so much better than the Wayne movie as to defy comparison. I read the book from cover-to-cover in one sitting, and knew that I had stumbled upon a truly great American writer, an artist who deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Twain, Lardner, and Salinger. I became a fanatic about the book on par with one of Portis’ own obsessive heroes. I hardly talked about anything else but True Grit for weeks, trying to convince all my friends that they should stop doing whatever they were doing and immediately read True Grit. I won no converts, only disbelieving and pitying looks from my friends who thought I didn’t have both oars in the water. Read a book that was the basis for a John Wayne movie? Judd had clearly gone round the bend.
[quote]From the opening sentence of Dog I knew I had lost my heart to dear, hapless Ray Midge and that I would gladly follow him through his hilarious, heart-breaking journey many times in my reading life.[/quote]
Undeterred, I was determined to read everything Portis had ever written. This took some doing in the 1990s because all of Portis’ novels, apart from True Grit, had gone out of print. I scoured used bookstores and eventually found a battered copy of The Dog of the South. Though my expectations were high, I was completely unprepared for a book that was even greater and crazier than True Grit. From the opening sentence of Dog I knew I had lost my heart to dear, hapless Ray Midge and that I would gladly follow him through his hilarious, heart-breaking journey many times in my reading life. I once again became like one of Portis’ obsessive characters and told all my friends to forget about reading True Grit and that they should instead read The Dog of the South, which was Portis’ real masterpiece. Once again I won no converts, only shrugs and pitying looks from my friends. I didn’t care. As surely as Dr. Symes believes John Selmer Dix has all the answers to the universe, I was convinced that Charles Portis was one of our greatest writers, perhaps the greatest American comic writer of the 20th Century.
In time, I found copies of Portis’ other books, which I read and savored. When I read the last of his five published novels, Gringos, I felt as sad as if someone had died—there were no more Charles Portis books to read, and apparently no new ones on the way. It was disheartening. To console myself, I re-read The Dog of the South countless times, somehow enjoying it even more with each reading. But it was a lonely preoccupation because I had no one to share the books with.
[quote]”Is this Portis guy the writer you were babbling about a while ago?”[/quote]
Then a small miracle happened: Overlook Press re-issued all of Portis’ novels. Suddenly, many of my friends who had previously declined to read True Grit or Dog were asking me, “Is this Portis guy the writer you were babbling about a while ago?” People I knew were buying Portis’ books and telling me about them. I couldn’t believe it! But I rejoiced because I finally had people to share the books with.
Around the time that the Coen Brothers version of True Grit was released, my kids and all their friends became interested in dear Mr. Portis. I became known as the crazy dad who had read all of Portis’ books and who knew everything there was to know about Portis. I felt like John Selmer Dix! People sought my advice as to which Portis novel to read first and I always told them that there was no better starting point than The Dog of the South. My copies of all of Portis’ novels started disappearing from my bookshelves as my kids and their friends borrowed and didn’t return them. I have lost track of how many replacement copies of the novels I have bought, especially of Dog—but it was money well spent to have inducted many people into the secret-handshake society of Portis lovers.
And now, whether you like it or not, dear artists, you are members of this secret society, and God bless you for it.
Judd Parkin has produced and written numerous telvision films, including the acclaimed CBS miniseries Jesus, the Christopher Award-winning Nicholas’ Gift, and the Liftetime Television perennial Christmas favorite Comfort and Joy. He is the author of the 2010 novel The Carpenter’s Miracle, which he adapted and produced as a GMC world premiere movie. In 2013, he adapted Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored for Book-It.