About two-thirds of the way into Charles Portis's novel Masters of Atlantis, a character named Dolores is arguing with her boyfriend, named Maurice, about his adherence to a strange, and going-nowhere cult, of the currently harmless Freemasons variety, if Freemasons still believed all of their ancient nonsense, called Gnomonism. Dolores intuits that Maurice is not especially happy with the part of his life that is steeped in Gnomonism, which involves him living part of his time in a temple located in Burnette, Indiana, and here she argues her case:
"But a tower in Burnette, Indiana. At your age. A professional man like you. I just don't get it, Maurice. I just can't believe there's much to it. You tell me you're sleeping in a chair. You admit you can't get your apricots stewed the way you like them and you say you can't get your brown eggs or your three-bean salad at all. Can't you see you're living in a house of -- cards? I almost said a house of pancakes."
I regard those last two lines as among my favorite bits of dialogue, as well as among the funniest I've ever read. This is no doubt a matter of taste, but I have an abiding love for any writer who can faithfully -- though not necessarily with complete slavishness to kitchen sink realism -- and imaginatively recreate these sorts of quirks in human speech. More than that, though, this passage is a nice illustration of Portis's style, which is a kind of deadpan absurdity that can be much admired but rarely emulated to the same effect. I know that among Portis's cultish (hey, that's I guess ironic) group of fans can be counted comedians like Conan O'Brien (who I remember, in an interview with Rolling Stone offering to lend Masters of Atlantis to his interviewer, as O'Brien regards it as one of the few laugh-out-loud novels he's ever read, but then mildly regretting his generosity and making sure the journalist knew that he wanted the book back at some point), David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Bill Hader (who is currently, with director Greg Mottola, working to make a film of Portis's The Dog of the South), but I can't say I can see much direct influence from Portis on any of them. There are no doubt a host of reasons for this, but I think paramount would be that in Portis, you rarely find any jokes, as we would normally define them. Outside of a few omniscient narrator interjections, which are in any case rare, everything in his fiction is played as straight as can be, to the degree that you actually sort of are laughing at the characters, rather than with them. But gently. But also loudly. In any event, I think it's probably very difficult to accurately, and genuinely, reproduce what it is Portis does, this sort of ridiculousness without ever winking at it, or signalling it. Portis's brand of absurdity must be, as Johnny Caspar once said regarding friends, a mental state.
Portis is, blessedly, still with us. He's 78, lives in Arkansas, as he has pretty much his whole life, and hasn't written a novel since Gringos in 1991. Before that was Masters of Atlantis in 1985, The Dog of the South in 1979, True Grit in 1968, and Norwood in 1966. And that's it. I'd very much like to know what happened after 1968, not to mention after 1991. Could the fairly wild success of True Grit, and the subsequent film adaptation by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, have had anything to do with the eleven-year gap? I have no idea, and don't want to speculate, so I won't. But I can't help but wonder if Portis, as J. D. Salinger is reported to have done, has been writing this whole time, and simply stashing it all away because actually publishing doesn't much interest him. He's a recluse, which maybe helps to fuel my Salinger-esque fantasy, though unlike Salinger he can be rustled out in front of a journalist from time to time, most recently in a few short pieces -- I read one where the journalist pointed out that while Portis agreed to be interviewed, he would not allow himself to be directly quoted -- that coincided with the Coen brothers' 2010 remake of True Grit. It must be said, though, that as publicity-shy as Portis is, he does owe a lot to articles written about him in the years since he's gone quiet. Especially articles written by Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote a piece for Esquire in 1998 called "Our Least-Known Great Novelist." Sadly, this article doesn't appear to be available on-line*, but I read it way back when, and it immediately sparked my interest. At the time, I only knew Portis as the author of True Grit, and I only knew True Grit as the John Wayne movie where he says "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" I wish I could remember the Rosenbaum article better, but what's most important about it is that it actually made something happen. Along with simultaneously exciting and frustrating, because the books were out of print, save True Grit, people like me, it also caught the eye of Tracy Carns of Overlook Press, a publishing company whose area of expertise can be inferred from their name. And, over a period of a few years, beginning in 1999, Overlook reprinted all five of Portis's novels, and they have remained in print ever since. This is not some flash-in-the-pan, trendy kind of resurgence, clearly. Portis's books are hanging in there once again. He's just not writing any more of them.
I was inspired to think, and to write, about Portis after rereading Norwood recently, and I was struck again by his effortless, or seemingly, but probably actually not, effortless, comic tone. And incidentally, if you’re new to Portis, Norwood is an excellent place to start, for several reasons. For one thing, it can be easily read in a day, by anybody, though if it were ten times as long I don’t think I’d kick up much of a fuss. More importantly, having also reread Masters of Atlantis, a book written almost twenty years later, not too very long ago, I can attest that Portis’s voice, or style, or whatever you want to call it, was pretty much fully formed right out of the gate. He knew at once the particular way he wanted to be funny, or was funny, and how to put that on the page. You could safely argue that Masters of Atlantis is more ambitious than Norwood -- and though it’s hard to pick, I might rank Masters of Atlantis as my favorite (that or True Grit, but please don’t tell Portis that) – but you couldn’t claim it was more mature, or a more accomplished example of his prose style. He had that down early.
Norwood is about Norwood Pratt, a recently discharged Army veteran who is returning home to Ralph, TX following the death of his father. The primary reason he needs to take over the family home is because somebody needs to take care of Vernell, Norwood’s sister. This is established much more economically by Portis in the novel’s first sentence, but I’ll dispense with the rest of the plot summary by saying that Norwood is essentially a road novel, which is kicked off in part by Norwood’s too easy-going, slightly naïve manner, as well as his understanding that these parts of his personality can only be stretched so far, and Vernell’s recent taking up with ex-Marine blowhard Bill Bird has stretched them pretty taut. So he agrees to take a job with a shady businessman named Grady Fring, who wants him to drive two cars to New York City and deliver them to Fring’s man up there, for which Norwood will be paid probably not enough, but the trip will also give him the opportunity to collect the seventy dollars he’s owed by one of his Army friends, who also happens to live in New York. And off he goes.
Nothing lasts for long in Norwood. It’s typical of road stories that they bounce from incident to incident, that’s their nature, but Norwood sheds characters and locations and modes of transportation at a furious clip. And since it’s a short novel anyway, this has the effect of making the thing pretty impossible to set aside. But it’s never rushed, nothing is short-changed, you never wish Portis or Norwood would linger somewhere or with someone longer than they do. Portis’s imagination may chug along, but he has a very sharp sense of pacing, and an ability to elegantly sketch out a place, or a character, or a comic...I was going to write something like “interlude,” but that sounds way too stuffy. So here’s what I’m talking about. Norwood has recently arrived in New York, and he sees a man dressed as Mr. Peanut outside the Planter’s store, beckoning to potential customers. Norwood goes over and starts talking to him.
”Do they pay you by the hour or what?” Norwood said to the monocled peanut face.
“Yeah, by the hour,” said a wary, muffled voice inside.
“I bet that suit is heavy.”
“It’s not all that heavy. I just started this morning.”
“How much do you get an hour?”
“You ast a lot of questions, don’t you?”
“Do you take the suit home with you?”
“No, I put it on down here. At the shop.”
“The one in Dallas gives out free nuts.”
“I don’t know anything about that. They don’t say anything to me about it.”
“He don’t give you many, just two or three cashews.”
“I don’t know anything about that. I work at the post office at night.”
“Well, I’ll see you sometime, Mr. Peanut. You take it easy.”
“Okay. You too.”
I think this passage pretty nicely encapsulates Norwood, so if you found it funny you should love every page of the novel. Even if you don't understand what I'm on about, read it anyway. There's a subtle profundity to all of Portis's work (though I haven't read Gringos yet, which is why I keep not mentioning it; I'm told it's very much a lesser work, by a friend who knows his Portis, but I remain undaunted and will read it presently) -- True Grit is especially magnificent in this way, though as a more-or-less straightforward Western, one that still happens to be very funny in parts, it does count as something of an outlier among Portis's small body of work.
But in Norwood, for instance, there's a bit where Norwood and a couple of characters who have gathered themselves among him at this point, including a chicken, are traveling by bus and find themselves passing by an accident, another bus carrying Elks, the Rotarian or Oddfellow kind of Elks, not the animal, and among the wreckage Norwood sees...
One Elk was lying on the grass, maybe dead, no ball game for him, and others were limping and holding their heads.
That "no ball game for him" is both fairly hilarious and glibly, intentionally so, touching. The suddenness of the fatality, even the unfairness of it, is contained within that bit of flippant gallows humor. Also, a woman named Rita Lee, who has caught Norwood's eye, and Norwood has reciprocated in his typically laconic fashion, questions Norwood about his military service, and asks:
"Did you kill anybody?"
"Just two that I know of."
"How did you do it?"
"I shot 'em."
"I mean but how?"
"Well, with a light machine gun. They were out there in front of the barb wire and one 'em hit a trip flare. It was right in front of my bunker and they just froze. My gun was already laid on 'em, except I had to traverse a little and I cranked off about thirty rounds and dropped 'em right there."
"Did they scream?"
"If they did I didn't hear 'em. A bunch of mortars come in and when that let up me and a old boy from South Carolina name Tims went out there and throwed a plank acrost the war and brought their bodies back."
But, crucially, this isn't Portis making a statement. This is all pure character, or straightforward observation. If Norwood has a message -- and it doesn't, but if it does -- it's that if you take enough shit, after a while you won't take it any longer. Not that you shouldn't take it any longer, because Portis never insists on anything, but simply that you won't. It is a quietly beautiful book in some ways, though the beauty isn't as easy to root out as it is in True Grit. Laughter can sometimes obscure things a little bit, so once you've read Norwood, go ahead and plan on reading it again. And everything else Portis wrote.
*In the absence of Rosenbaum's Esquire article, you can read this one he wrote about Portis for the New York Observer in 1999. For the record, this is where I got my information on the Overlook reprints.