In the '90s the cool kids were all reading Charles Portis.
His books were out of print rareties, for one thing — except for True Grit, which was usually buried in the Westerns shelf, alongside Louis L’Amour and Max Brand. If you wanted to read Portis — the real Portis, mind you, the stuff Hollywood couldn’t possibly bastardize — you had to keep a diligent eye out during your weekly trawl of used book stores.
In '91 Gringos was published. The bookflap made it sound like one of Robert Stone’s more realized efforts. My opportunity to become a full-fledged Portis-head, at last!
I put it down after 30 pages.
Still, the hip kids kept waxing hip about Portis. When his ouevre was finally re-released in the Aughts I picked up Masters Of Atlantis, figuring the subject matter would make it an easy finish.
It did and it was. I thought the novel’s ability to evoke was almost narcotic. It put me back in touch with that pre-digital era when a person could sit in an otherwise empty room and allow his thoughts to fill it. Blank walls, long winter nights, geographic solitude all conspiring to stir thoughts that had every potential of taking a dangerously religious turn — heady stuff, no question.
When I finished, though, the book went directly to the “out” box. The likelihood of ever desiring to pick it up again was just that low.
A younger version of myself would roll up his sleeves and either give account for why I remain unable to dig Portis, possibly taking the Great Man down a peg or two, or else begrudgingly assent to conversion. The 55-year-old version of me will simply note that, much as I was able to admire Masters Of Atlantis, Jim Harrison covers similar material and embues it with Harrisonian frisson — which draws me back for repeat visits. Similarly, although True Grit does hold a place on my shelf, I am more prone to revisiting Little Big Man or even Blood Meridian. For aging bloggers with limited time there is no accounting for taste, and those are mine.
Other, better Portis-'splication: the late D.G. Meyers adored Masters Of Atlantis. The concluding paragraph of Meyers’ lovely and compelling essay:
Portis’s secret in Masters of Atlantis is to tell the story of an obscure luckless religious cult, a den of nutcases, as if it were straight reporting, factually correct, without exaggeration for comic effect. The result is so funny you can’t read it safely in a public place. Masters of Atlantis is a great joy to read — it is the very novel for which the phrase “curl up with” seems to have been invented — but it leaves a curious aftertaste. You begin to worry if the intellectual independence of which you are so proud, the principled shunning of America’s consumer culture, the patient acquisition of rare and unpopular knowledge over the course of a lifetime, doesn’t make you just as nutty as the Gnomons. Who knows but that the literary life is nothing more than another esoteric New Age religious cult?Read the whole thing here.
|Flanked by the competition.|
Some see the book [True Grit] as Portis’s albatross. Ron Rosenbaum, whose enthusiasm for the novelist’s lesser-known works was instrumental in their republication, found it necessary (in a 1998 Esquire piece) to distance Portis from his most famous creation (“too popular for its own good”), in order to make his case for the true gems of the Portis canon. But the novel occupies a position similar to that of Lolita in relation to Nabokov’s works: Though it might not be your personal favorite, it cannot be subtracted from the oeuvre; nor can his other writings fall outside its shadow.Over at The Believer Ed Park reckons with True Grit, in juxtaposition with Portis’ other work.
And finally: somewhere in this house is a copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate, with a bookmark firmly lodged one-third of the way through. Bookmark and book are likely in the latter stages of petrification — I bought and started the novel back in '85, put it down sometime before '90 and have yet to pick it up again. Odds seem long against me ever doing so.
Good thing Ashutosh Jogalekar did, though. Over at 3 Quarks Daily he culls some of the more memorable quotes from the novel while making The Case For Dumb Kindness. Also: LARB has recently published some terrific pieces on Grossman: Philip Ó Ceallaigh's “But There Has Been a Catastrophe”: On Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” here; and Vasily Grossman: Myths and Counter-Myths by Yury Bit-Yunan and Robert Chandler, over here. Anyone with even a passing interest in Cold War history and/or literature will be well-served by all three pieces.