News & Events

Butler Center Books to Publish New Charles Portis Collection

Escape Velocity

Charles Portis, author of the classic American novel True Grit and other works of comic fiction, will soon release his first new book in more than 20 years. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany will be published this fall by Butler Center Books, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System.

The book – which collects Portis's nonfiction and short stories, as well as a memoir and a play – spans his half-century-long writing career, covering his early journalism from the 1950s when he worked for several newspapers up to more recent magazine stories published in the Atlantic and the Oxford American. Known as a master of deadpan humor, Portis has seen his best-selling book True Grit made into two award-winning films (in 1969, starring John Wayne, and in 2010, directed by the Coen brothers) and his four other novels become cult favorites. Escape Velocity will bring together almost everything that Portis has written outside the novels, both never-before-published work and hard-to-find stories that fans have known about for years and that new readers will delight in discovering.

The book is edited and introduced by Jay Jennings, a journalist and humorist who, like Portis, is a Little Rock resident. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated and frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Jennings is the author of Carry the Rock (Rodale Press, 2010), a book that focuses on the 2007 football season at Little Rock's famed Central High School – a half-century after the tumultuous 1957 desegregation of the school. "Like many Portis devotees," says Jennings, "for years I've kept a folder filled with these occasional pieces and I'm thrilled to be able to collect them here – along with some new finds."

Escape Velocity features one major previously unpublished work, a comic three-act play, Delray's New Moon, which is set in Arkansas at a hotel and café off the interstate. The play follows a group of elderly residents being forced out so the place can be turned into a night club (and they're hilariously unhappy about it).

Also new to most readers will be the wide selection of Portis's journalism, including a striking section of his reporting on the civil rights movement for the New York Herald Tribune. He covered many major events in the summer of 1963: protests in Birmingham, the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and Alabama governor George Wallace's stand to prevent admission to African American students at the University of Alabama. Other newspaper stories include Portis's coverage of the funeral of Elvis Presley's mother, humorous columns written for the Arkansas Gazette, and a Herald Tribune story about his comic attempt to quit cigarette smoking by spending a week in a rehabilitation facility.

Portis's travel pieces for national and regional magazines will be gathered in Escape Velocity, along with four previously published short stories. In addition, the book will feature his long (and only) memoir, "Combinations of Jacksons" (which originally appeared in the Atlantic); a rare interview (with former New York Times journalist Roy Reed); and appreciation pieces by prominent authors Roy Blount Jr., Wells Tower, Donna Tartt, Ed Park, and Ron Rosenbaum – who has called Portis America's "least-known great novelist."

Besides True Grit, Portis is the author of four other novels – Norwood, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos. All of his novels are available from Overlook Press.

The official release date for Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany is October 1. The book will be available from local, national, and online booksellers. It may also be ordered through the distributor, the University of Arkansas Press, in Fayetteville (www.uapress.com; 800-626-0090).

About the Author

Portis was born in El Dorado (Union County, Arkansas) in 1933. His family, which included two brothers and a sister, later settled in Hamburg (Ashley County, Arkansas). In the early 1950s, he served in the Korean War with the Marine Corps and was discharged in 1955. He enrolled in the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and graduated in 1958.

After starting his journalism career at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Portis worked for the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock for almost two years, writing among other things the "Our Town" column, a standard feature of the paper for several decades. After leaving the Gazette, Portis got a job at the New York Herald Tribune, where he spent four years, the last as London bureau chief. Among his colleagues there were Tom Wolfe, Lewis Lapham, and Art Buchwald, all of whom would become well-known authors.

In 1964, he left the Herald Tribune and returned to Arkansas to write fiction. His first novel, Norwood, was published in 1966. His next novel, True Grit, was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1968, published as a book the same year, and made into a movie the next year.

Portis, a long-time resident of Little Rock, has also written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Oxford American, which gave Portis its first Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature award in 2010. His play, Delray's New Moon, was produced by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in April 1996.

About the Editor

Jay Jennings, a journalist and humorist, lives in Little Rock. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated and frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Jennings is the author of Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City (Rodale Press, 2010).