Two things surprised me about this book. First, when it was published it was widely considered an American masterpiece. Donna Tartt’s essay about True Grit is well worth listening to, and her reading of the audiobook is wonderful. (David Sedaris said on Michael Ian Black’s podcast that Tartt was meant for the role, and he was right.)
Second, the book is absolutely brimming with economic logic. We learn about Tom Chaney’s character from the fact that he works for hire rather than shares. He owns one of the nicest rifles of the day (a Henry) but carries it on a cotton plow line, suggesting he doesn’t care for his belongings. Mattie’s father, by contrast, still carries his service pistol and the two gold pieces he was given for his wedding. These details, along with the fact that he rides to Ft. Smith to save money, suggest that he is a conscientious man.
The three-party negotiation between Mattie, Rooster Cogburn, and LaBoeuf is a study in self-interested reasoning and expected value. First, LaBoeuf tries to convince Cogburn to join him in seeking the reward money that the Governor of Texas is offering for Chaney (a.k.a Chelmsford). Cogburn is skeptical, though, because that will require taking Chaney alive (and thus he assigns a lower expected value the potential $500 than to Mattie’s dead-or-alive $100 reward):
“How much is she paying you, Cogburn?”
“She is paying enough,” said Rooster.
“Is she paying five hundred dollars?”
“That is what the Governor of Texas has put up for Chelmsford.”…
“What is the terms?” said Rooster.
“Payment on conviction.”
Rooster thought that one over. He said, “We might have to kill him.”
A few minutes later, Mattie tries to convince Rooster to ignore LaBoeuf’s suggestions by suggesting that he is engaging in cheap talk. Rooster counters that he has his own self-interest to look out for:
“You are thinking about that reward money,” said I. “It is a pig in a poke. All you have heard from LaBoeuf is talk and I have paid you cash money. If you believe anything he says I do not credit you with much sense. Look at him grin. He will cheat you.”
Rooster said, “I must think about myself some too, sis.”
Overall this is an under-appreciated book, one that is well worth your time, and the rare example that is better in audiobook form than in print.