“Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” – Roy Blount Jr.
It’s my opinion that many books, which would otherwise be fantastic, take themselves far too seriously. This, again, in my opinion, is the outcome when writers spend a little too much time brooding and being ‘writerly’ that they forget their basic job is to tell a story, and that stories can be fun.
Charles Portis, thankfully, hasn’t forgotten that books can and should be fun to read.
Portis grew up in Arkansas, served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea, attended journalism school at the University of Arkansas (supposedly, he chose journalism because he thought it would be easy), and worked at newspapers of increasing sizes before ending up London Bureau Chief of the New York Herald Tribune — a job once held by Karl Marx — before moving back to Arkansas and setting up shop in a fishing shack, of all places, to write his first novel, Norwood.
Basically, this man is my hero. Portis’s most famous work is undoubtedly True Grit, but we are not here to talk about True Grit. We are here to talk about Masters of Atlantis.
Masters of Atlantis, his fourth novel, follows the rise and fall of the Gnomon society, a civilization obsessed with the ancient wisdom of Atlantis. The two main leaders of the Gnomonists are Lamar Jimmerson and Sydney Hen. Did I mention that the names in this book are fantastic? ‘Cause, they are.
The society goes through all sorts of rifts and political follies. Really, it’s the type of story that could be described as a “romp” — including a part in which a con man named Austin Popper tries to popularize the Gnomonists in order to make himself rich and he, along with Professor Cezar Golescu, evade serving in the military during World War II by hiding out in the fictional mining town of Hogandale, Colorado. Oh, and they do this all while attempting to use alchemy to make gold and become rich. (Spoiler: It doesn’t work.)
Poris is one of the most inventively comic writers ever in American literature, and this passage from the part in which Popper and Golescu are in Colorado proves it:
“By way of a cover story, Popper introduced himself to the citizens of Hogandale as Commander DeWitt Farnsworth of Naval Intelligence, lately wounded in the Philippines. He affected a limp and wore a soft black hat and Lincolnesque shawl. He had come to the mountains to convalesce in the sparkling air, as well as to help his refugee friend, Dr. Omar Baroody, with his sticky experiments in weed saps, from which he hoped to develop a new kind of rubber, so desperately needed in the war effort. Herr Hitler and General Tojo would give a good deal to know Dr Baroody’s location. As it turned out, no one in Hogandale cared.”
So that’s the Colorado part of the book. The rest of it is great as well.
If you, like me, love cults and political intrigue but aren’t in the mood to deal with the darkness that comes when those subjects are generally explored, this is the book for you. It’s a farce, and a beautiful one.
What do you think? Have you read Masters of Atlantis before? If so, what did you think? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.