Bryan Charles is the author of the novel Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way, published by Harper Perennial in 2006. His writing has also appeared in Open City and the anthology Before and After: Stories From New York. Below Bryan discusses Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis.
Bryan Charles on Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
Charles Portis was born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas. His first novel, Norwood, was published in 1966. He is probably best known for his second novel, True Grit, which appeared two years later, sold a million copies and was the basis for the popular John Wayne film. Both of these novels involve quintessentially American figures - Norwood Pratt and Mattie Ross - who leave their rural homes on a quest. In Norwood's case it's the repayment of a $70 debt owed to him by an old marine buddy now living in New York. Mattie Ross is out to find the man who killed her father.
It was 11 years before a third novel was published. The Dog of the South is also about a search - Ray Midge wishes to track down his wife, who has fled to Mexico with her previous husband - but it is a longer book, richer, its vision more expansive, its many crackpot characters drawn with an empathy that allows them to rise above the level of caricature. Outrageous events unfold but again, Portis's deft hand elevates matters above the level of sheer slapstick found in many of Thomas Pynchon's wackier digressions. I bring up Pynchon because Charles Portis has evidently been compared with him - and I use the word 'evidently' because none of my cursory Googling of Portis turned up any such comparisons (my source here is instead the back cover of the Overlook Press reissue of The Dog of the South). I'm not entirely convinced there's a parallel but if any of Portis's books could be even loosely characterized as 'Pynchonesque' it would be his fourth novel, Masters of Atlantis. And really, upon a second reading, my feeling is that the book could only have been a product of Charles Portis's singular vision.
Masters of Atlantis tells the story of the Gnomon Society, a secret brotherhood whose mission is to preserve the wisdom of the lost city of Atlantis. The exact nature of this wisdom is never made clear - there are numerous references to spirals, lags, triangles, Egyptian riddles, alchemical metaphors and Pythagoras - though it hardly matters, since the entire order - and thus the entire half century of Gnomonic practice chronicled in the book - is founded on a con dispensed with on page three. Lamar Jimmerson is a young American serving overseas at the end of World War I when he meets a shadowy figure named Nick or Mike or Jack or Robert, who tells him of a book called the Codex Pappus. The Codex contains the secret wisdom of Atlantis and therefore the keys to initiation in the Gnomon Society. Lamar is granted swift entry, charged $200 for his robe, and nothing further is heard from his variously named friend. Yet he is shortly convinced that this mystery man was none other than Pletho Pappus himself, translator of the Codex, current Master of Gnomons, and that he, Lamar, has become a Master by proxy, along with another new initiate, Sydney Hen.
In his earlier books, specifically the first two, Portis's main characters are guided by what strikes me as a distinctly American brand of optimism and up-by-your-bootstraps tenacity. Masters of Atlantis, then, is about what happens when those same qualities are misguided, or manipulated by delusional hucksters, or both. At any rate, our story is under way, and it is told in a cool, unwavering deadpan that establishes vast chasms of irony as events become more preposterous, beginning with the arrival of Austin Popper, Mr. Jimmerson's on-again off-again spokesman and, without question, one of American literature's most hilarious creations. Popper is first seen as a kind of Gnomonic Dale Carnegie. He urges the Master to revise the Codex, pruning 'most of the triangles and a good many of the oracular ambiguities' to give the text a more populist appeal. He draws large crowds at his rallies, signing up new members by the thousands with his charismatic boosterism. Yet things go awry in short order when, after the outbreak of World War II, he drags the Master to Washington DC to present Roosevelt with a Gnomonic plan for winning the conflict involving the use of compressed air.
'Air?' said Mr. Jimmerson.This trip to DC is the novel's big reveal, the moment that a) we learn Austin Popper is insane, and b) Portis throws the comedic engine into high gear. After that it simply doesn't let up. Popper flees to Colorado, where he and a partner attempt to refine gold from bagweed leaves. The result is a deliriously funny 35-page digression strong enough to end countless lesser books. When Popper finally reappears at the Gnomon Temple in Burnette, Indiana, he is wearing a wig, 'ill-fitting and too black, (the hair) matted in ropes and whipped up into whorls and peaks and frozen in place with wax'. On and on it goes, from Mr. Jimmerson's ill-fated run for governor of Indiana to Popper's second stint underground - this time in a years-long alcoholic blackout - and subsequent appearance before a Congressional committee investigating 'various cults, sects, communes, cells, covens, nature tribes and secret societies'. The novel ends on Christmas Day, in a trailer park in Texas. To say more would spoil it, though I will tell you that in the final pages the Telluric Currents are strong and a new Gnomon Cycle may well be at hand.
'Compressed air,' said Popper. 'What you're thinking of, sir, is ordinary air, the air we breathe, which is so soft and gentle we hardly notice it. Compressed air is something else again. It packs a real punch.'
Since Masters of Atlantis - 22 years ago now - Charles Portis has published just one other novel, the engaging though less successful Gringos. That was 1991. In 1996 a couple of shorter pieces appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Beyond that, nothing. His Wikipedia entry runs a scant six lines - not including his list of book titles - the last of which reads: 'Portis is reclusive and travels frequently to Mexico.'