Literature-wise, for me the last year has been the year of Jane Austen and Charles Portis. My present Austen re-reading kick is due to my own idiosyncratic reasons, but my discovery of Portis is entirely due to seeing the Coen Brothers version of True Grit . . . and I imagine Im not the only one led by that film to the great pleasure of reading his books for the first time.
Portis is perhaps our greatest 20th-century comic novelistany of you who liked Confederacy of Dunces or who go for P.G. Wodehouse will likely love Portis. I earlier reported on one of his two comic road-trip books, Norwood, and have recently also read Gringos and Masters of Atlantis . Both of these books reveal a fascination in, well, kooks and the distinctive shape of American kook-ery. UFO experts, hippie devotees of Mayan mystagogy, budding alchemists, feuding Masons, potential Nation of Islam converts, Portis is interested in them. And not just for comic purposes.
Masters of Atlantis is the deadpan account of how a young American Lamar Jimmerson becomes convinced in 1918 that he has been given the charge of bringing the teachings of Gnomonism, the true Pythagorean science esoterically passed down over the ages from the survivors of Atlantis, to his fellow Americans, and of how he actually gathers a significant following of believers, with the help of the Great Depression and some all-American promotional methods. It has something of the flavor of the Elijah Muhammad story(best told here and here ), without of course the racial/political agenda and motivation, and without the real content of Islam. Think: Masonry, but a bit stranger. For about the first hundred pages, youre sometimes asking yourself, This is kinda funny and ingenious, but why am I reading about these weirdos? and Why does Conan OBrien endorse this book with a blurb that says its one of the most out-loud laughter-causing books he knows? but eventually, as the characters are put into place, things are set up for one incident after another of hilarious absurdity, always all-too-true to certain aspects of the American character. An unforgettable comic crescendo is the result, entirely true to Conans endorsement.
In Gringos some of the kook-characters actually begin to take full shape, revealing themselves as capable of real villainy or real heroism, and not so unlike the rest of us. In this book, however, the account of kook-ery, i.e., the story of American Gnomonism is more for the sake of a comic tour-de-force , an attempt to structure a novel for maximum eventual comedic impact. Still, real insights into the sorts of kook-ery our culture is particularly susceptible to are there, and Portis manages to develop our sympathy for even some of the most deluded characters. While we can all agree that the creation and career of a cult is a in many ways sad storythere is nothing ultimately funny about real people getting caught up in the coils of Masonry, UFO-abduction-insanity, or the Nation of Islam Masters of Atlantis is not simply a case of a comic writer lightening everything and using absurd bits of Americana for the sake of laughs. There is a way, even when things are as light as can be, in which the life-wasting potentialities of cult-dom are never lost sight of, and in which we wind up rooting for our cult-creators to find some semblance of happiness amid the absurd wreckage of life theyve unleashed. The strangely sweet ending of the book, that is, the strangely motherly instinct it draws out from us, reminds us that more has been going on than laughs.