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(When Rooster, in his cups, offers sick Mattie a spoonful of booze, she intones, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains”).
But Mattie also re-creates, poignantly and despite herself, her stark discovery of a world gone suddenly wrong, and what had to be done to set it right.
Blood literally stains the book’s first and last sentences, and Rooster, though admirable in his tenacity and his paternal protectiveness of Mattie, has a half-hidden history of trigger-happy law enforcement and less defensible acts of carnage.
Indeed, the Overlook reprint provides a necessary corrective for latter-day Portis enthusiasts, a prism for the acts of violence in his other books: the cathartic fistfight punctuating ’ startlingly gory if swift climax.
Writing in 1928 (i.e., on the eve of the Great Depression), a spinster banker named Mattie Ross revisits the central chapter in her life: the winter of 1873, when, as a fourteen-year-old from Yell County, Arkansas, she hunted down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, with the help of a tough U. marshal that she hires (the “old one-eyed jasper” Rooster Cogurn) and a young Texas Ranger (the cowlicked La Boeuf).
As Wolfe notes of Portis’s enviable success: “He made a fortune… * In office south of Times Square, as stubborn proof that the dream of the Novel—with its fortune-changing, culture-denting potential—never really died, even at a time when journalists were discovering new narrative ranges, fiction-trumping special effects.In any event, Portis left not only England but ink-stained wretchdom itself—“quit cold,” as Wolfe writes in “The Birth of the New Journalism: An Eyewitness Report” (1972), later the introduction to the 1973 anthology .After sailing back to the States on “one of the Mauretania’s last runs,” he reportedly holed up in his version of Proust’s cork-lined study—a fishing shack back in Arkansas—to try his hand at fiction.These journalists work pretty fast, and the slim picaresque appeared in 1966, to favorable notice.
Portis’s signature drollery and itinerant protagonist (Norwood Pratt, auto mechanic and aspiring country singer, ranges from Ralph, Texas, to New York City and back, initially to recover seventy dollars loaned to a service buddy) are already in place.
Norwood’s decidedly humble (call it American) menu nails the country’s midcentury gastronomy with a precision that today takes on near archaeological value: canned peaches, marshmallows, Vienna sausages, cottage cheese with salt and pepper, a barbecue sandwich washed down with Nu Grape, a potted meat sandwich with mustard, butter on ham sandwiches, biscuit and Br’er Rabbit Syrup sandwiches, an Automat hot dog on a dish of baked beans, Cokes and corn chips and Nabs crackers, a Clark bar, peanuts fizzing in Pepsi, a frozen Milky Way.