Escape Velocity - Charles Portis

Is there anyone over the age of five, who hasn’t heard the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover”? Doubtless on occasions though, we have all ignored these sage words and been suckered into buying a dud. Full praise then is due to Mike Reddy, whose beautiful cover forced my feet in unerring steps towards a collection of writings from an author that I had not the foggiest notion about when I was in the lovely Durdham Down Bookshop the other week.

Escape Velocity by Charles Portis? No, it meant nothing to me. The cover informed of two books that he had written, The Dog of The South – nope never heard of that and True Grit –well I’ve heard of the film but having a near pathological dread of “Westerns” I still had nothing to base any real opinion on.

The back cover though raised my hopes that I would be able to find a reason to take this splendid looking item home with me, the word droll was mentioned. Yes it talks of comic novels and brilliance of language but droll is a world then it seldom used and in my mind at least one that sets the bar pretty high. Instincts assuaged, the purchase was made.

The book is a marvellous collection newspaper work, short fiction, a play and travel writing amongst other things. Portis writes brilliantly about the Southern states of America in the tormented years of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Terrifyingly blunt on the civil rights protests and stupidly funny on difference of phrase between the folks of Arkansas and Mississippi these pieces never get trapped in one voice.

Being from that time and place, music crops up quite a lot as well. There are some nice short pieces on Elvis and his family. A highlight for me is a wonderful piece on the changing face of Nashville and Country music that was written in 1966. It effortlessly entices the reader in to the strangely parochial world that somehow spread its tentacles around the globe.

Another favourite was his recounting of his travels around bottom of the barrel, Motels and the characters that Portis encounters along the way. Also amongst the travel section is an extended piece on a car journey through the Baja California peninsula that even made me, the sort of person who deals with an unexpected noise from the car engine by turning the radio up until the issue goes away, interested in the workings of an automatic gearbox in challenging terrain. Good work indeed.

All of it is beautifully written, funny, informative and yes droll. So much so, that yesterday I returned to the Durdham Dowm Bookshop and picked up a copy of True Grit. Maybe Charles Portis can lead me on a literary path into the world of the Western after all.