Masters of Atlantis

by Charles Portis (1985)

You may not have heard the name, but you're doubtless familiar with his most famous novel, 1972's True Grit, the classic western set around the time of the infamous Hangin' Judge Parker of Fort Smith's reign on the Arkansas/Oklahoma border. Unfortunately, the rest of Portis' books didn't fare so well, languishing out of print with their author in obscurity; but, as is wont to happen with the changes of literary fashion, Portis has become the benificiary of a revival in the past year -- his books have been reissued, and at least one major American magazine has claimed him as "our most underrated writer". Well, given the state of contemporary American literature, I won't dispute the claim that he's one of the best writers alive today; but on the evidence here -- the only Portis novel I've read so far -- I'll chalk him up as an entertaining, but minor, writer in the overall scheme of things. As Southern writers go, he's no Faulkner, no O'Connor, which means to say that he's merely good as opposed to great. Which, as anyone who's tried their hand at scribbling stories knows, is still a damn fine accomplishment -- I certainly would have to work very hard to write a novel like Masters of Atlantis; and that's the difference between good and great for you -- I can concieve of creating a good piece of art through diligence, sweat, luck, and talent; a great work teases me as beyond the scope of my talents, no matter how hard I try. Portis runs head to head with Jack Butler as the best novelist Arkansas has produced (maybe -- I haven't read Donald Harington yet), and he's worth reading for his slightly bemused comic-humanist outlook, a philosophy always welcome in these dour, technocratic times.

Masters of Atlantis is a spoof that takes itself seriously; that is to say, the subject matter is absurd, but the tone Portis takes does not draw attention to the absurdity, as he simply repeats the tale of other people's silliness with a straight face (okay, a slightly bent face). Secret societies such as the Freemasons and the Shriners were a huge fad earlier in this century, when grown men dressed up in wizard's hats and repeated psuedo-mystical gibberish mixed with bogus psuedo-science to which they swore themselves to secrecy as their underground society's 'codes'. The novel follows the history of the Gnomon society and its two co-founders, Lamar Jimmerson (an American) and Sydney Hen (an Englishman). The beginnings of the society are a joke that the two founders themselves aren't in on: the recently-discharged WWI vet Jimmerson finds himself swindled in France by a man who allows him admission to the secret Gnomon society for a fee of $200. Naturally, Jimmerson never sees the man or the money again, but that doesn't dissuade him from establishing an American branch of the Gnomon society; the mysterious swindler becomes a legend in the society, and the book he gives Jimmerson, Codex Pappus, becomes the society's holy text. Codex Pappus allegedly contains the wisdom of Atlantis, from whence Portis derived the title. From that beginning, book traces the rise and fall of the Gnomon society, including rift between the competing schools of Jimmerson and Hen, and testimony to defend charges of anti-American activities -- in fact, the dialogue of the hearings is easily my favorite part of the book, reaching heights of sublime farce. I can apply several descriptive modifiers to Portis' tone in this book: dryly witty, absurdist, low-key, all-American, casually whistling as life casually passes by. The adjective that springs to mind most readily, though, is droll. A peculiar quality, and not a particularly Southern one -- closer in spirit to the eccentric English sense of quirkiness, the slightly offbeat as the normal state of life. Yet Portis is definitely a Southern writer, just not one of the Mississippi gothic Faulkner school -- he's an Arkansan, and the lighter touch, the low-key charm, the droll irony, the realization of the slightly askew nature of life all mark Portis as a native son. Whereas another type of Southern writer would hit the reader heard with heavy allegories and darkly gothic plot atmosphere, Portis prefers the more subtle, indirect route, and realizes that life is a bit too goofy to be considered all that dark.