A young Charles Portis aims at his adult self. Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.
"Escape Velocity" is a new collection of miscellany by Charles Portis, best known for his 1968 western novel "True Grit," adapted by the Coen Brothers for the 2010 film starring Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Jeff Bridges.
The genre-spanning compilation, including a previously unpublished three-act play, is introduced and edited by Jay Jennings and peppered with witty illustrations by Mike Reddy. Like Portis, Jennings resides in Little Rock and has a background in journalism; Portis covered the civil rights movement in depth . He titled the book after a line from Portis’s novel "The Dog of the South" that reads: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”
Arkansas figures prominently in Portis’s work, and the memoir portion of this volume tells us about his childhood there. Portis is historically unforthcoming about his background (he didn’t allow author bios to be printed in early editions of his books), so devoted fans are thrilled to sink their teeth into these recollections.
He describes being a kid during World War II, trying (and failing) to swing vine to vine like Tarzan, pretending to run from the Axis powers in the “reed beds of Beech Creek,” and fashioning breathing tubes out of reeds so that he could lay undetected under the water while “Nazi spies and Japanese saboteurs” tried to hunt him down.
In tribute to Portis and the spirit of the new book, here's a visual take on his boyhood by Brooklyn-based illustrator Nathan Gelgud.