"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Every keen reader has at least one or two authors she’s been meaning to get to for years. Friends recommend their books. You’ve read interest-piquing reviews or biographical essays. Favorite authors list them as a major influence. Maybe you even bought a book by one of them once during an ambitious moment, and now it sits yellowing by your bedside. There always seems to be a slightly more alluring title you’d rather read first, or you have that book-group assignment to finish, or something about the cover art just puts you off. For whatever reason, you’re never quite in the mood for what you think that author has to offer.
The ease of an audiobook can sometimes nudge a foot-dragging reader over these inexplicable hurdles. I’ve been intending to read the novels of Charles Portis for ages. Everything I’d heard about this “writers’ writer” suggested his books would delight me. I loved both film versions of his best-known novel, “True Grit,” and my most discerning friends swear by the rest. Donna Tartt, author of “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend,” rhapsodized about “True Grit” in an afterword included in an edition published in the mid-2000s, describing it as one of “the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime.”
Most recently, there was a very persuasive essay by Bill Morris, published by the website the Millions late last year. Morris prompted me to buy an e-book of a new collection of Portis’ nonfiction. I still haven’t read that. What finally made me bite was the release of a new recording of Portis’ first novel, “Norwood” (1966), read by David Aaron Baker. Baker is best known as the audiobook narrator of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, but he impressed me most with his indelible reading of M.T. Anderson’s “Feed,” a sort of futuristic YA tragedy-satire — one of the most difficult genre mashups imaginable and probably not a whole lot easier to perform than it was to write. (It’s sensational, by the way.) Fifteen minutes into Baker’s “Norwood” I was asking myself, Why did I wait so long?
There have been other recordings of this novel. However, Portis’ forte is comic dialogue, so the right actor — one who can combine precision timing with a completely relaxed manner — is essential; previous performers struck me as drab and clipped. Baker seems to have marinated in Portis’ sensibility, a voice and view of the world that could be likened to a lighter version of Flannery O’Connor. Devotees of Mark Twain and Elmore Leonard will probably feel at home here as well. (If what you like best about the FX series “Justified” is the repartee and the humor, then come on down.)
Trying to convey what makes Portis great is like trying to describe a summer breeze. In “Norwood,” a none-too-bright 23-year-old ex-Marine travels from minuscule Ralph, Texas, to New York and back in search of $70 owed him by a buddy from the service. It’s a meandering quest, a sly parody of a chivalric romance, and along the way Norwood meets an eloquent hobo, fanciful Puerto Rican street kids, a down-at-heel British midget, a “college educated chicken” and his first genuine New York Jew — each character snapping instantly to life as soon as he or she speaks a sentence or two. Few novelists have greater relish for American speech than Portis, and in Baker he has an interpreter willing, ready and able to follow him wherever he wants to go.
The great drawback to Southern fiction is a propensity toward the laboriously colorful, those tedious parades of grotesque characters and events that always get described as “rollicking” on the book’s back cover. Believe me, I sympathize with those of you who read the list of quirky figures above and thought, “No thanks.” Rest assured, Portis’ approach to these oddballs is deadpan and understated — which, of course, is exactly what makes him so funny. (You don’t want to listen to this audiobook anyplace where you’d be embarrassed to laugh out loud.)
“Norwood” is short — less than five hours — and no sooner had I finished it than I rushed to download Baker’s reading of “Dog of the South.” After that, I plan to move on to “True Grit,” generally considered Portis’ masterpiece. Baker doesn’t read that one, as the novel’s first-person narrator is a young girl. Being a writers’ writer is usually a mug’s game, but for Portis, it has paid off in in at least one respect. The audiobook of “True Grit” is read by Donna Tartt herself.
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Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
The Listener is Salon's new weekly audiobook review column, where Laura Miller and other top critics will recommend a great new title for you to plug into. So stay tuned -- and come back every Thursday for a new installment.