This spring, my friend Chris Morris and I walked into a bookstore as we have done every Tuesday for the past thirteen years. We walked straight to the Fiction and Literature section, where he grabbed a copy of Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis off the shelf and said, “You have to read this; I’m buying it for you.”
At lunch we had been discussing how I had just finished Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, and was, in a word, astonished. In the expression of my wonderment, Chris laughed a little and asked me if I had ever heard of Charles Portis. I told him I didn’t think so, and he said that he was the guy who wrote True Grit. This, of course, left me wondering where he could possibly be going with this: I had never read True Grit, but I had seen the Coen Brothers movie. I had just assumed that they were remaking a John Wayne movie, because that’s the kind of thing that the Coen Brothers might do. He went on to explain that Portis wasn’t a writer of Westerns at all (I thought True Grit must have been written by someone like Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour); however, it turned out that Portis was the kind of writer that I am most interested in: mid-Twentieth century American writers defining fiction on their own terms.
Charles Portis is an interesting fellow. He was born and raised in Arkansas, and joined the Marines during the Korean War. Afterwards, he studied journalism at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. When he finished school in 1958, he worked for six years as a reporter for different newspapers. According to Tom Wolfe in the new documentary Salinger, Portis was once on an airplane seated behind JD Salinger and one of Salinger’s old friends. He heard Salinger give his friend an account of what had been going on in his life for the past several years, which for a young reporter from the New York Herald Tribune would have been a coup, so he took copious notes. When they landed, Portis approached Salinger and told him who he was and that he had overheard him on the plane talking with his friend. Salinger went white as a ghost and asked him not to print anything. Out of respect, Portis threw away his notes and didn’t write the story. Maybe it was then that he decided that his desire for scoops was outweighed by his desire to write, because he moved back to Arkansas in 1964 to write fiction full-time.
Portis’s first two books Norwood (1966) and True Grit (1968) were both successful and were, strangely, not only originally published (in condensed, serial form) in The Saturday Evening Post, but also made into movies starring Glen Campbell. Then Portis’s output slowed way down. It took him eleven years to publish his next book, The Dog of the South (1979), and another six after that to publish Masters of Atlantis (1985). Since Masters of Atlantis, Portis has only produced one more novel, Gringos (1991).
In my opinion, there is no better way to be introduced to Portis’s work than through Masters of Atlantis.
Masters of Atlantis is an excellent book — adventurous, thought-provoking, page-turning, and very, very funny. It is the story of the Gnomon Society, a quasi-religious organization established into quasi-popularity by Lamar Jemmerson. Its mysteries are claimed to be ancient and mythical, while its adherents are modern and kooky. Its tone is hard to describe accurately, as Portis’s narrator seems simultaneously reverent and judgmental of the action, almost as if a third-person omniscient narrator can wink.
Though the Gnomon Society itself is certainly a poke at New Age religion, after Portis establishes it as a reality, his characters do all the work for him. Jimmerson states that the kind of people he is looking to have join the society are “independent thinkers,” but his description of what that means is a little cockeyed: he is looking for those who “ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, [and] kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers.” The people he finds are marvelous and petty, willing to do anything to further the society’s success and, in turn, improve their own positions, as well. You get a little bit of a feeling that without Gnomonism, these people might well have become Amway salesmen.
Masters of Atlantis is a kind of masterpiece. With a plot just complicated enough to maintain pace, and a deadpan delivery sure to make you laugh, Charles Portis might just be the best writer that you’ve never read. Thanks, Mr. Morris.