Tuesday 1 December 2015

Masters of Atlantis

I recently wrote a piece on Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis for a literary magazine with a line in forgotten/neglected classics. In the event, it wasn't used, so, by way of upcycling, I shall post it here for the select band of connoisseurs who browse the pastures of Nigeness...

The American author Charles Portis is best known for his classic western True Grit, but among his other work is a comic novel that is regarded by its admirers – myself included – as one of the funniest of the 20th century, and one of the most distinctively original. It has been described as ‘a glimpse of how a twentieth-century Mark Twain might write’, and Portis is certainly a writer in that droll Southern tradition, but Masters of Atlantis is (like True Grit) a complete one-off. I first learned of it from references on various American blogs, was intrigued, bought it and read it – and read it again and, just now, again – and every time I found it so laugh-aloud funny that it was positively embarrassing to read it on public transport.
 Portis’s comedy is impeccably deadpan. He has no need to set up comic situations and setpieces; everything emerges from the characters and their doings, which Portis has only to describe in his spare, fluent prose. For these characters of his are – how shall I put it? – a bunch of crackpots, cranks, dingbats. Portis does nothing to point this up – he hardly needs to – nor does he mock or judge; he is sympathetic, entirely relaxed about the endless possibilities of human folly. As well he might be, so many of those possibilities being richly comic.
 So, what is it about? Masters of Atlantis tells the story of one Lamar Jimmerson and the founding, flourishing and long decline of the Gnomon Society of America, a fraternity dedicated to preserving the, er, ancient wisdom of the lost city of Atlantis. When the novel begins it is 1917 and Jimmerson, in France serving with the American Expeditionary Force, finds himself at a loose end in the town of Chaumont. There, one evening, he is approached by ‘a dark, bow-legged man’ who, in the course of several meetings, takes a deal of money from Jimmerson, a trusting soul – and passes on to him a volume beyond price, the Codex Pappus, in which the Gnomon Master Pletho Pappus has laid out, for those initiates who can understand it, the whole wisdom of Atlantis.
 Armed with the Codex and the Poma – a conical red hat given to him by the mysterious stranger – Lamar makes his way to Malta to seek out, as instructed, Pletho Pappus and a man named Rosenberg. His attempts to make himself known to the one Pappus and three Rosenbergs in Valletta, making use of various Gnomon salutes, come to nothing. However, before long, an English aesthete named Sydney Hen crosses Jimmerson’s path, and soon shows himself determined to possess the Ancient Wisdom, dominate the passive Jimmerson, and, if he can get his way, take over the entire Gnomon project. Two things come out of this fateful meeting – Lamar’s marriage to Sydney’s surprisingly sane sister Fanny, and, ultimately, the Great Schism that will divide World Gnomonism into the Jimmerson School and the Hen School.
 Portis wastes no time in tracing the rise of Gnomonism in America, covering the years up to 1936 in the novel’s first 20 or so pages, along the way chronicling the contributions of Jimmerson’s helpers, including a go-ahead fellow called Bates:

‘Through a friend at the big Chicago marketing firm of Targeted Sales, Inc., he got his hands on a mailing list titled “Odd Birds of Illinois and Indiana,” which, by no means exhaustive, contained the names of some seven hundred men who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers, who might be more receptive to the Atlantean lore than the general run of men. Lamar was a little surprised to find his own name on the list… His gossiping neighbours in Skokie, it seemed, had put him down for an odd bird. They had observed him going into his garage late at night in a pointed cap and had speculated that he was building a small flying machine behind those locked doors, or pottering around with a toy railroad or a giant ball of twine.’

 The helpful Bates is soon quite eclipsed by the arrival of Austin Popper, the character who is the comic heart and driving force of Masters of Atlantis. Popper is a motormouthed, silver-tongued bull artist with a unique talent for talking himself and those around him into all manner of scrapes, then talking himself out of them – or, in extremis, taking to his heels. He appears, disappears and reappears throughout the book, and the effect of his reappearances is always galvanising.
 One of Austin Popper’s early triumphs is in the Battle of the Books, bitterly fought with the now openly hostile Sydney Hen:

‘Hen stepped up the campaign… by having his people remove Mr Jimmerson’s books from libraries and bookstores and destroy them. Popper countered with a program of defacement, ordering the Jimmerson men to fill in all the closed loops of letters in Hen’s books with green ink, to underline passages at random in that same green ink and to scrawl such comments in the margins as “Huh??!!” and “Is this guy serious?” and “I don’t get it!” in red ink, the aim being to break the reader’s concentration and to subvert the message. He also commissioned a drawing of a pop-eyed, moronic human face, that of a collegiate-looking fellow with spiky hair and a big bow tie, and had rubber stamps made of it. The face had a strange power to annoy, even to sicken the spirit – one had to turn away from it – and Popper directed that it be stamped on every page of Hen’s book, in a different place on each page so that the reader could not prepare himself.’

 At one point, Popper takes off for the Rockies with a Romanian madman called Golescu to pursue a scheme of extracting gold from a (fictitious) plant of repulsive appearance and invasive habit called Creeping Bagweed  or Blovius reptans. Not only does the scheme fail but Popper and Golescu fall out over a woman, and Popper is chased out of town by an FBI agent. Another mysterious Popper disappearance ensues, followed by another triumphant reappearance to energise the increasingly torpid Jimmerson and his dwindling band of followers.
 Masters Of Atlantis has been criticised for losing momentum as it goes along – hardly surprising, as it is a story of loss of momentum, of the long decline of Gnomonism from its interwar glory years. But Portis doesn’t linger on this, at one point letting 12 years pass between chapters  - ‘another long Gnomonic stasis’ – and whenever Austin Popper reappears with his latest crackpot scheme (e.g. Jimmerson to run for Governor of Indiana) things liven up no end.
 By the time of Popper’s final reappearance, Jimmerson and his tiny band of followers have taken up residence in a trailer park in La Coma, Texas (‘a town notable for its blowing paper’), owned by one of the few living  Gnomonists, a wheelchair-bound midget called Morehead Moaler. But the Gnomon Society is to have one last moment of public attention when it is one of the subjects of a Congressional investigation.
 The account of these proceedings is among the funniest chapters in the book, as the ill-briefed and mystified interrogators try at once to hurry things along and to get to the bottom of the matter, ponderously pursuing bizarre and irrelevant lines of questioning. Here they want to find out more about Austin Popper’s lost years as an alcoholic tramp living in a box:

‘”A big crate? A packing case of some kind?”
“A pasteboard box.”
“Under a viaduct in the warehouse district of Chicago?”
“No, sir, it was in a downtown park in one of our eastern cities.”
“A long box you could stretch out in?”
“A short one… When it snowed I had to squat in it all night with my head between my knees like a yogi or a magician’s assistant. Then when morning came I had to hail a policeman or some other early riser to help get my numb legs straightened out again.”
“More a stiff garment than a house.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Hunkered down there in your box, slapping at imaginary insects on your body. Your only comfort a bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack. Supporting yourself with petty thievery, always on the run, with Dobermans snapping at your buttocks. Not a pretty picture.”
“It was cheap rum.”
“The clear kind?”
“The dark kind.”
“ As an urban bum, Mr Popper, did you often stagger into the middle of busy intersections with your gummy eyes and make comical, drunken attempts to direct traffic?”

And so, gloriously, on.
Comedy is a deeply subjective affair – there are even people who don’t find Wodehouse funny – but I hope this taster of Masters of Atlantis might tempt you to give it a try. If it’s your kind of comedy, you’re in for one of the most enjoyable reads of your life.

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. Duckworth, 2011 (UK paperback), originally published 1985.

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