Those of us with a love for comic fiction have always looked to a pantheon of writers who came of age in the sixties and seventies, most of them clustered around New York: Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman. There were those from the journalistic side who wrote the occasional novel, like Calvin Trillin and, writ large, Tom Wolfe. Then there was a coterie of others who escaped the gravitational pull of Manhattan. Their stories took place all over America, from the Western frontier to the highways of the south, to unnamed towns in the Midwest. One of them, Thomas Berger, produced a steady stream of literature, much of it mordantly funny, until slowing down a few years ago.
And then there is Charles Portis. He is best know for True Grit, which was made twice into hit movies, but it is his other four novels that tend to show up on the All-Time Favorite List of one writer or another, including Masters of Atlantis, which is on mine. The Dog of the South seems to be the choice of many others. They are sly, deadpan and picaresque, winding their way through the obscure byways of the American hinterlands. There characters are searching, but for what? Mayan mysteries, the ancient wisdom of Atlantis, a runaway mate?
Why, we wonder, such a slim output? What has Portis been doing all this time?
The question is addressed, if not entirely answered, in Escape Velocity, A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings. What we have here is a collection of just about everything Portis ever published, ex his novels, including some highlights from his journalism career which started in Arkansas, where he was born, took him to Memphis and Little Rock during the heart of the civil rights movement and eventually to the New York Herald Tribune, where he ascended to the head of its London Bureau, before walking away from it all and returning to Arkansas.
As Portis aficionados, we search through these articles, and later some longer travel pieces and a few short stories, looking for the deadpan voice, the shrewd sense of character that we find in his fiction. What we uncover, to begin with, is a sense of place in the South. He grew up in various small towns in Arkansas, even had an uncle who fought as a teenager for the Confederacy. When Portis covers violent nights in Birmingham and Little Rock in the sixties, there is no sense of “Can you believe these people?” He has an eye for detail regarding the personalities: the troopers and politicians, as well as the civilians, black and white. Here’s a sampling of Portis’ report from a Ku Klux Klan meeting outside Birmingham in 1963:
The imperial wizard of the Klan, Robert M. Shelton, presided and introduced the speakers…on a big flat truck trailer bed. [Mr. Shelton, is a thin, intense man of about 40. An old friend of former Governor John Patterson, he is a tire dealer from Tuscaloosa.]
Honored guests were the grand dragons of Georgia and Mississippi. [One of the favorite speakers was a man in red who warned of sickle cell anemia, “a deadly organism, lurking in all nigger blood.
“If so much as one drop of nigger blood gets in your baby’s cereal, the baby will surely die in one year.” He did not explain how he thought a negro would come to bleed in anyone’s cereal.]
Portis, upon joining the New York Herald Tribune, found himself sharing a rewrite desk with the likes of Tom Wolfe and Lewis Lapham. An extended interview at the end of the book relives those days, but sheds little light on his fiction output once he returned to Arkansas. My favorite pieces are the four extended travel articles. One of them, from the LA Times Sunday Magazine in 1967, details a trip to the southern tip of Baja in a 1952 Studebaker pickup. (You can wax nostalgic about the days when the LA Times had a Sunday magazine). Another, entitled “Motel Life, Lower Reaches,” is a survey of bargain motels in the south and southwest, and the characters that inhabit them. In one of them, Portis becomes a celebrity because he possesses a pair of jumper cables.
The short stories are funny, but they are brief and there are only a few of them. There is a play, Delray’s New Moon, which centers on a crusty group of small town Arkansas senior citizens about to be deported en masse to a disreputable nursing home when their small residential hotel is transformed into a dance club.
Escape Velocity provides ample dosages of lost Portisiana, though it doesn’t provide us much in the way of answers as to what the author was doing all this time. Not that five terrific novels isn’t enough for one literary life. Still, we wonder…was he discouraged by sparse sales, or a lack of support from a publishing industry notable for it’s scarce enthusiasm for comic fiction, not to mention life out there in the hustings. Were there the usual false starts that ended up deep-sixed, or projects that never saw the light of day?
Most likely Portis just wrote what he wanted, when he was good and ready. We wish there was more, but it’s nice to have this collection now at our disposal.
Some of you may have been wondering how I didn’t end up included in Andy Borowitz’s “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” his anthology that was published last year. I suppose not having been published in twenty years might have been a mitigating factor, though it didn’t seem to hurt O. Henry or James Thurber. Although the book certainly included many of my favorites, including Mark Twain, Calvin Trillin, Charles Portis, Woody Allen and Philip Roth, there were some notable omissions. You can’t feel bad being part of a “left off” list that includes Joseph Heller, John Barth, Carl Hiaasen, Thomas Berger and Donald Westlake.
You’ll note among the latter group a common trait: they all worked primarily in long form. To get on Borowitz’s list it helped to have a significant output of short stories or essays, preferably published in the New Yorker or something similarly Eastern. As someone who fell in love with comic novels from the first time I met Huck Finn, I thought I’d present my own list of favorites.
For a long time I kept a short list of best comic novels in the back of my mind, sort of the way people carry frayed photographs of their kids or relatives in the back of their wallets. Throughout my young adulthood, that list would always begin with Huck Finn, Catch-22 and Portnoy’s Complaint. I suppose coming of age in the early seventies, it wasn’t surprising to see books that dealt with racial inequality, the absurdity of war and masturbation at the top of the list, not necessarily in that order
The main contribution of collegiate lit courses was to introduce me to John Barth. In those days The Floating Opera, The End of The Road and Lost In The Funhouse were widely taught as examples of post-modernism, whatever that was, but it was The Sot-Weed Factor that captured my imagination. Set in early 18th century colonial Maryland, it told the story of Ebenezer Cooke, poet and virgin, and his chameleon-like mentor, Henry Burlingame. Barth wrote often and at great length about the Potomac and environs, but if you don’t mind 500 pages of early English dialect, Sot-Weed is his best.
During the early 1980s, it was possible to be sitting on a bus or by the pool or at the beach and hear somebody next to you hunched over a paperback and laughing out loud. They were probably reading John Kennedy Toole’s, A Confederacy of Dunces the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives with his mother in a crumbling house in New Orleans in the early sixties, scrawling out manifestos on Big Chief tablets and angry screeds to his sort-of girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. When Ignatius has to venture onto the streets of New Orleans in search of work, chaos ensues. Most people know the story by now of Toole’s suicide after failing to publish the book, and the campaign by his mother to sell the manuscript, which eventually was discovered by writer Walker Percy. For more insight, check out the documentary film, The Omega Point.
Charles Portis received a much-deserved public re-introduction when the Coen brothers remade True Grit, but my favorite of his remains Masters of Atlantis, a hilariously deadpan story of Lamar Jimmerson, an Indiana doughboy who becomes head of the Gnomons, a Mason-like sect that sweeps the country after the World War I. I owned the film rights for a few years, and tried unsuccessfully (so far) to get them back after True Grit was released. Hint to whoever acquires those rights: I’ve got a great screen adaptation! But I digress…
Thomas Berger gets a lifetime achievement award for my list. Certainly Little Big Man and Return of Little Big Man are landmark achievements, but it is Berger’s collection of mordant, exquisitely crafted novels of the latter part of the 20th century that stand out. They include: Neighbors, Nowhere, Meeting Evil, and my favorite, The Houseguest.
Turning to comic crime fiction, which is my specialty, the names that stand out are Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen. You can read any of the Dortmunder series and find yourself captivated by the capers of a hapless bunch of New York burglars led by the redoubtable John Dortmunder. Westlake’s invisible man story, Smoke, is equally enjoyable. Hiassen has his own trademark tales of Florida depravity. The early ones are my favorites, especially Native Tongue, his send-up of the Disney empire, with his corrupt Francis X. Kingsbury’s Amazing Kingdom of Thrills.
You cannot lose with Calvin Trillin. While most of his work is in shorter form – even his novels are on the slim side – Floater, his story of a “back-of-the-book” writer for Time in the sixties and Tepper Isn’t Going Out, his “parking novel” of a few years ago are wonderful.
Among more recent titles, Tom Perotta’s Little Children is a perfectly conceived and executed story set in the east coast suburban world of young families. And Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, about a dysfunctional Jewish family mourning the death of their father, is another that will have you laughing out loud.
I could go on. Richard Russo, Ron Carlson, Nora Ephron, James Wilcox, John Gregory Dunne, TC Boyle, Lorrie Moore, Thomas McGuane, all have moments of hilarity amid less purely comic work. But I think that is enough to take to the beach and have the person next to you wondering, what’s so funny?