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Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis

As pick-me-ups go, I would heartily recommend a Charles Portis novel. After slogging through Sebastian Faulks (see Engleby) I was in a vile humour - as can be attested to by my lovely wife - so I was in the market for something less oppressive and more, well, Kurt Vonnegut-esque. Vonnegut is my regular antidote to being miserable, but I had used up most of my virginal Vonnegut resources in a bleak spell during so-called halcyon university days.

Having bought and read everything I could find which Vonnegut has published (including the delightful Sun Moon Star with Ivan Chermayeff and the script of the NET Playhouse production of Between Time & Timbuktu) except for his latest posthumous collection (which I’m keeping for a far rainier day than this – but more later), I worked through some of my lists of American authors of whom could be said that they were in some way quirkily satirical or blackly comic. Tao Lin (too bizarre for today), Jim Dodge (read ‘em all), John Barth (I just don’t have the energy) tried and failed to interest me, so in the end, I took the vicarious advice of a trusted bookseller friend who knows about these things and picked up Masters of Atlantis from his Cult Fiction shelves.

Being my first Portis, I decided to research him a bit, and rummaged around online to give me some context. I read somewhere, possibly on an unofficial fan / scholars’ website that the quest motif is prevalent in Portis’ novels, and this article went on to prove it not so much at length but in sufficient detail as to render it soporific. Having now read the book, I can say without fear of contradiction that this quest was never going to end well. Lamar Jimmerson’s grudgingly accepted mission, that of preserving and disseminating (albeit without actually giving anything away) the “lost” lore of Atlantis, is destined to fail from the moment Mike from Alexandria (or is that Phletho Pappus from Malta?) “gifts” Lamar – for the tiny sum of $200 – the only copy of the Codex Pappus which contains the ancient mathematical, geometrical and verbosely obfuscatory wisdom of the deluged civilization. From such seeds of deception grow a fairly vivid if slightly meandering comic narrative.
In terms of entertainment, to be washed downstream by the unstoppable flow of Portis’ imagination is an absolute pleasure. The story is relentless if less than aerobic, and characters appear and disappear at whim, often with complicated but enjoyable back stories, but also, as in the case of “Bulldog” White, with no more than a swift introduction before becoming integral to the story. It may seem a little like improvised cookery at times, with characters serving as short-lived literary spice to the overly full pot-au-fer that is this rambling storyline, but it just about holds together. There are several set pieces of genuine laugh-out-loud excellence, none more so than the scene where initiate Austin Popper defends Gnomonism (the name of said Atlantean mysticism) before a Texas panel convened to interrogate rogue cultish elements in the state. And, being Portis, it’s all told with a completely straight face.

[Insert "insert book here" joke here]
It’d be a stretch to match the hyperbole I’ve found on some of the more fervent fan sites about the web, but if you’re looking for a pleasant diversion from the never-ending drudgery of existence then I don’t see why you would reach past a Portis. Unless, of course, you’re Sebastian Faulks, in which case you can grind your face into nearest abrasive surface and then chew your own beard off. Thanks.


How's about that then?

Apochryphal Tales by Karel Čapek

Many (many) years ago, when I first read War With The Newts, after scouring the Waterstones' internal database (whimsically named Ibid, and from which one could print the details of books onto the till roll in light- and so it seems, time-sensitive purple ink which, on the inches thick ream of leaves I printed for future perusal, faded within a few months rendering my catalogued wish list so much locker mulch) for authors with a suitably Czech-sounding name, having put away an entrée of my first slim Hrabal, a palate-cleansing Kundera and in need of a meaty Moravian main course, I think I might have completely and totally missed just how funny it was, bloated as I was by the doughy and Victorian-sounding translation and the rather unlikely ideation of the future political terroir of mankind and their unusual amphibian slaves and, latterly, sappers, the newts.

How's that for a sentence David Foster Wallace? INTERROBANG.

Well, there's no chance that Čapek's typically Czech…

Free Fall In Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Trav is back, still grieving the loss of some chickadee or other whose death almost knocked him off his game, but not too shook up to set himself up with a few more lucky lovelies whilst tripping his way through another overly complicated and rather sordidly underwhelming plot. This time, some bikers are making dirty movies with minors on the set of a future classic hot-air-balloon movie. Travis falls into the action because a rich old geyser carks it in unusual circumstances and it affects the trust fund of a former marina-mate. And hirsute intellectual Meyer wets his pants towards the end. 

You may sense a fatigued, sardonic note in my precis. It's not that I don't still love John D., it's just that after embarking on the long game that is reading the entire Travis McGee oeuvre, I'm approaching the end and it feels long overdue. It's been fun, it's been enlightening, but it's also been a schlep. With the realisation I might now have fewer years left to me …

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …