“There is no knowing what is in a man’s heart.” So says Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old protagonist of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit. It’s a theme that will be sounded several times in the story: Trust no one, for no one is trustworthy—not a horse trader, not a traveling salesman, not even boozy U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, about whom Mattie concludes, “You cannot give any weight to the words of a drunkard.”

They may not be trustworthy, but Portis, a one-time crime reporter, knew that people predictably inflict all sorts of awful mischief on one another. Bad behavior reigns from the first page of his book, when young Mattie must leave the family farm and go to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to retrieve the body of her father, murdered by a hired hand named Tom Chaney.

Chaney is already wanted for having killed a Texas politician, and everywhere he goes blood gushes forth. Tireless and maddeningly persistent, Mattie learns of Chaney’s likely whereabouts in Choctaw country and hires Cogburn to bring him in. Rooster may be an alcoholic mess off duty, but when he’s on, Mattie allows, “They say he has grit.”

Cogburn is also the meanest of men, another plus in Mattie’s ledger of revenge. Though he tries to brush it aside, he rode with Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas alongside the sociopathic Jesse James. When a proper Confederate veteran named LaBoeuf, now a Texas Ranger, joins in Mattie’s hunt, he taunts Cogburn by saying, “I have heard they were not soldiers at all but murdering thieves.” Cogburn lives up to the description, for, he admits, he robbed a few people here and there—and, as it happens, a vanishingly small number of the criminals he hunts survive long enough to stand trial.

Chaney is no match for young Mattie, perhaps the most indomitable young woman in American literature. Neither is Cogburn, for that matter, though in an odd way Mattie ennobles him. After the bloody deaths of numerous innocents and guilty alike, he even saves her life.

Mattie returns to her farm along the Arkansas River and grows to a respectable adulthood, so mistrustful of others that she spends her life alone. LaBoeuf disappears in the vastness of Texas. As for Rooster, with one suspicious death too many attributed to him, he loses his job as a marshal, kills a few civilians in a Montana range war, and ends his days working in a Wild West sideshow alongside Cole Younger and Frank James. As Mattie puts it, “These old-timers…lived dangerous lives, and now this was all they were fit for, to show themselves to the public like strange wild beasts of the jungle.”

Its Western language less exotic than that of Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s kindred tale, True Grit, newly reissued in a Library of America omnibus of Portis’ fiction, is a classic literary Western—or perhaps better, anti-Western—its faith in the possibilities of justice and honor undone by the violence and genocide of the 1960s. Out on Charles Portis’ frontier, the only certainty is violence—for there is no knowing what lies in the heart.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.