NOVEMBER 18, 2012
— I —
IN THE MID-1980s I WORKED at one of the world’s truly awful bookstores, a dispiriting outpost on the UC Berkeley campus run by an ex-Marine who said he didn’t need to read books to know how to sell them, and who was baffled when our new shipment of Machiavelli’s The Prince didn’t have a movie tie-in cover with Purple Rain. He was sure this was such a lost opportunity.
The morning after the store burned down, I walked through the ankle-deep runoff and found among the charred or waterlogged overstock one hardcover copy of a book that, I admit, I immediately stole. I’d paid attention to it every day of my employment because it never left the shelf, no one ever moved it, it nonetheless mysteriously got progressively shopworn, and we never even returned it when we should have for credit. It had the most ridiculous cover I’d seen on a work of literary fiction: a naïve-style drawing, like Glen Baxter without the irony, of two guys in hats regarding a cone on a table. This was of course Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis, and I stole it because it was waterlogged and singed, and the fire had spared what had to be the stupidest book in the universe. I was fond at dinner parties of whipping it out to show what sort of things God left behind. In other words, I was about as misguided as the ex-Marine bookstore manager, and in other, other words, if you’re feeling generous I was as wrongheaded as a Charles Portis character.
Cut to 2003. Ed Park published an essay in The Believer about the ignored comic genius of Charles Portis. Only now did I read the book I’d had on the shelf for almost 20 years. I read non-stop, laughing until I actually wept, possibly the first time that had ever happened courtesy of a work of fiction. I read three of Portis’s other four novels (I’m saving Gringos) and loved each of them in slightly different ways. I learned how press shy he is, how unprolific, and how there isn’t a mediocre work in his oeuvre — five good novels and zero anything else. I was now a member of the Portis cult. I subscribed to The Atlantic only for the right to download the single short story of his I knew about. I recommended him, even to people who lacked senses of humor. I began lying about when I’d first read him. “1985, of course. Rescued the book from the smoldering ruins of a bookstore. Really, you didn’t know him until recently? Pity, that.” And every opinion I gave was cribbed from Ed Park’s essay (sorry, Ed).
There is something about cult artists that causes people like me to wish we’d been there all the time. I did see REM in a club in 1983 (I keep typing 1982), and I did read CD Payne’s Youth in Revolt when it was self-published, but for the most part I have stumbled into the work of the artist you’ve never heard of right as the press is on a wave of bemoaning his or her sparse audiences. That’s how I read Boris Vian, for instance, the unfairly forgotten existentialist. That’s how I learned of Aimee Mann, when it was still a blood requirement that journalists use the Homeric epithet “unjustly ignored” in the second paragraph. Jay Jennings, in his introduction to the new Charles Portis “Miscellany,” Escape Velocity, hits the I-discovered-him-way-early note, with justification. He also says he told Jonathan Lethem that Portis was “our greatest unknown novelist.” Lethem’s response? “Yes, he’s everybody’s favorite least-known great novelist.” (Lethem, I believe, was read the Norwood manuscript in utero, so you can’t compete.)
The possessiveness is problematic, of course. With the cult comes the completist, and now that we’re several decades past the advent of the box set, we — meaning myself in this case — are no longer fooled that it’s actually necessary to have 16 alternate takes of “I’ve Got a Crush on the New Teller.” So I faced the Charles Portis “Miscellany” with anxiety. It’s a collection of journalism, memoir, travel pieces and such, but not the whispered-about “new novel.” Only 20 of the 350-odd pages are fiction, which means Portis is playing just outside the sandbox that we know as his strength.
But Escape Velocity pays off in more ways than I could have dreamed. This isn’t an introduction to Portis’s work, however. It’s more for advanced beginners, for those of you who know already know how bread is made. If you’ve read this far without reading his work, and if you do happen to have a sense of humor, go read True Grit, Masters of Atlantis and The Dog of the South, in any order. I’ll wait right here for you. Everyone has a favorite — Dog is a road comedy of stubborn delusions, Masters is like the best Bob and Ray routine ever written, and True Grit seems not so much written as carved from the same totemic basalt that gave us Huck Finn. When you’re done with these, you can either pick up Norwood and Gringos or not; in either case you’ll be well on the road to Escape Velocity, which you should also read. Just not first.
Now — if you have read Portis and you’re on the fence, just open this collection to his most recent story, “The Wind Bloweth Where it Doth Listeth.” It contains in its seven pages many familiar elements — newspaper men, crappy automobiles (a Gremlin, this time), nostalgia for a time that might not have existed, an insane ambition — and something I haven’t seen in his work yet: pure fantasy. A wealthy widow has funded a project to see if a hundred monkeys really will, if given time, type out the works of Shakespeare. It’s educated, every bit of diction is whittled for maximum impact, and it’s entirely possible this is a monkey-veiled critique of MFA programs, but in any case, it’s freakin’ hilarious, and it’s exactly what you want from undiscovered Portis. It makes the rest of the collection — which is a hodgepodge, true — worth it. Now, close the book and step away, because we need to discuss something else: the oeuthre.
— II —
Pretend with me that deep into his career Lucian Freud revealed a secondary passion, after portraiture, for playing a musical instrument. No, seriously, just go with it. If you’re a fan of his, you have your own Lucian Freud in your head — mine plays the oboe, blues oboe, and quite well, thank you. Imagine now the world premiere of Lucian Freud’s oboe concerto, perhaps at Southbank, certainly preceded by weeks of build up, a rough and blurry set of photos in Vanity Fair, interviews with Leigh Bowery about how, yes, during their 11-hour sessions of intense poses, Freud would break the tension by whipping out his stick and noodling the hipshakes out of a mean 12-bar rattlesnake riff until it was time to go back to work.
When the work is finally public, what does it actually sound like? My imaginary critics of this imaginary music refer to: “…the fleshy landscape of the human body made musical.” They say, “as with the brushstrokes on his canvases that reveal the ugliness of intimacy, each note of his concerto causes us to question our relationship to the stark lights cast upon our souls.”
In other words, they don’t fucking know what the music sounds like. Which I understand — it’s hard to see an artist’s other work as its own weird beast. We’re all really hoping that the music came from the same place as his painting. To be cut such slack — if that’s what it is; perhaps it’s “to be accorded such kneejerk attention”— is the curse and blessing of the person whose oeuvre in his chosen form is spellbinding.
Louis Armstrong was devoted to collage. Picasso wrote plays. Michael Jordan played baseball. Bob Dylan paints. Bryan Adams takes photographs. Dan Brown composes music. Madonna does kid’s books, Jonathan Winters also paints and James Franco has an MFA in every form of writing outside of doing novelizations of Spark Notes. Very little of that, good or bad, can stand on its own.
For our purposes here, I need a word for the output created by an artist in a medium other than the one in which he or she is definitely gifted. For much of the time, this can just be a “hobby” — I think of Harry Dean Stanton playing guitar, for instance — but now and again, either through critical attention or bullhorn announcement courtesy of the artist himself, the secondary work ends up being considered important.
Oeuthre is a lovely word, which came courtesy of my friend Paul Armfield. It combines a feeling for the totality of the work, and otherness, along with a phonetic hint that seems, depending on the lighting, either shoddy or exotic. In July, at the San Diego Comicon, I stumbled over a book I did not know existed, collecting an oeuthre that sounded surreal — the cartoons of Flannery O’Connor. This handsome hardcover meticulously presents the linoleum prints she carved and sometimes captioned before the Iowa Writers’ Workshop gave her a new direction to follow.
It’s juvenalia, but with an asterisk. Thomas Merton famously wrote, “When I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” And who wouldn’t want to see Sophocles’s high school yearbook? I quickly imagined a review, with an opener like, “Showing passion for an entirely different medium, a young Mary Flannery O’Connor sharpens her wits and gives us first-draft indications of Mr. Shiftlet.” In other words, I was wasn’t seeing the work. I was instead doing my review of Lucian Freud’s oboe concerto.
Cartooning was O’Connor’s first artistic passion. She drew chickens, of course, and jokes for her father, and then as a student at Peabody High, contributed linoleum woodcuts to The Palladium, the school newspaper. She continued her cartooning in college, adding approximately 100 pieces of work to her portfolio. She signed her cartoons with a pictogram of her initials that looked like a bird. An article in the local paper (“Mary O’Connor Shows Talent as a Cartoonist”) and a pile of rejection slips from The New Yorker indicate how serious she was.
The problem is, the work isn’t terrific. The style is that of a very young woman who ignored the prole Sunday funny pages for The New Yorker and probably the Saturday Evening Post. She’s influenced by John Held, Jr, James Thurber, Gluyas Williams and, to my eye at least, the wartime Dr. Seuss in one piece, and Ludwig Bemelsman in the crowd scenes. The few more accomplished pieces at the end are such close approximations of Thurber’s I’m not surprised The New Yorker turned her down. I spot direct homages to The Last Flower and Is Sex Necessary? in how her characters pose. Even her captions (“Do you think teachers are necessary?”) are Thurber-riffs.
And all this is as it should be. As an apprentice, she should be imitating the people she likes, and she should be repeating mistakes and aiming low and making newspaper deadlines. So why was I disappointed? I realized the problem was mine, not hers, when I saw page 65 of this book. There are two cartoons, one of a woman using her umbrella to whack a line of WAVES on the calves, and another showing three girls weeping over a comrade who’s fallen in a pothole. These are cruel and macabre and grotesque and for a moment I thought (again) I had my review plotted out — here she was, finally bursting into that Southern Gothic butterfly. But then I realized: Shame on me for trying to find the same mind here that said, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s just not there yet.
In his introduction, Barry Moser runs into this, too. He is game in his appraisal of O’Connor’s work, but just scanning his adjectives (“naïve,” “coarse,” “rudimentary, “unpolished,” “wanting of anatomical accuracy”) suggests how politely he’s looking for something to say before settling on her good sense of “gesture.” He adds, “She also said that a story — or a linoleum print, if you will — has to have muscle as well as meaning, and the meaning has to be in the muscle.”
It’s a great phrase, but let’s parse that. O’Connor said that meaning/muscle thing about her stories. She didn’t say it about her prints. If we’re going to try to recontextualize (or just plain take out of context) O’Connor quotes, here’s one I like: “The meaning of the redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history, and nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.”
This is history, and it’s Mary F. O’Connor, a dead end for an average talent, not an early blush of Flannery the fiction writer at work. But I’d still recommend it to the curious. Come at it without expecting same genius, but look at it because it’s an extreme close up of biography. Look because there is so very little of her stuff to look at, just as there is too little Vulgar Boatmen, Jim Steranko, John Kennedy Toole, Italo Svevo, Baron Corvo, Arrested Development, Jean Vigo, or Radio Coteau Dusty Lane Syrah.
When we love something, there is too little of it. We dearly clutch at what exists and hope there will be more, and when we find something really close to “more,” we try to find the strong jawline and merry eyes of the love we first surrendered to even when we need to squint hard and pretend it’s still there. We want that love so badly we’ll give CPR to the dead language on the page, for hours.
— III —
As far as cults go, Portis is up there with Pynchon and grass-fed beef. There are reasons. For one thing, he might be the best at what he does, deadpan comedy featuring misguided people. I don’t mean that the subject itself generates the passionate readership — it’s that reading him is like watching an Olympian at his focused best. Also: we know little about him; he doesn’t saturate the marketplace (five novels and nothing else easily found in 46 years); his style is hard to describe, so you really have to explain to yourself why you like him; he writes comedy.
This last thing is the hidden dynamite within the cult. Humor is personal and a little shameful and someone who makes you laugh holds an inexplicable power over you. I have written before that, academically speaking, the comic novel’s greatest sin is to actually be funny rather than witty. Something puritan in us denegrades the belly laugh. Portis’s humor reminds me of John Kennedy Toole’s, as their humanity drives the laughter. Portis is warm and compassionate, if astounded by man’s infinite capacity for self-absorption. You will find him in the sympathetic company of George Saunders, Mark O’Donnell and Wodehouse, but not of Borges or Nabokov or perhaps even O’Connor. Those last three strike me as the types who would believe, like Freud, that the bark of laughter devolved from an ape’s triumphant shout over the body of dead foe. Portis might or might not, but he wouldn’t express an opinion until he’d sat down and interviewed that ape.
Fresh from reading the O’Connor cartoons, I was nervous to tackle Escape Velocity. This was Portis writing, of course, rather than, I dunno, clog dancing, but it’s oeuthre material. He is a hedgehog kind of writer to us, not necessarily accomplished outside of the novel form. If The Sundays were to put out a new album, only it was gamelan music, you’d be nervous, too. This diverse collection presents an immediate problem that editor Jay Jennings accidentally puts front and center. Norwood, the first novel, came out in 1966. The first newspaper story by Portis in this collection is from 1958, in other words eight full years before the stuff we know we like. Of the journalism, Jennings writes, “the first story, full of civic tomfoolery, already demonstrates his trademark wry humor and keen observation.”
A comment like this feels not like a curator asking us to pay close attention to the brush strokes, but more like a defense of inclusion. “No, really, this has merit. Read this and be faintly reminded of the later work that’s actually good.” At once I was thinking of O’Connor’s young women contorted in linoleum settings and depressed by how my brain now would try to reverse engineer a positive response, finding something like “penetrating wit” that wasn’t actually there yet.
No worries. The first piece of journalism really is full of wry humor and keen observation. Better: the next several pieces are about Elvis. That Portis and Elvis were in the same room is as unlikely as Portis and Malcolm X or Portis and J.D. Salinger (both of which also happened). Elvis was home from the army for what turned out to be his mother’s death, and Portis writes quite movingly, if from a newspaper man’s distance, of the shift from seeing his subject as Elvis to seeing him as a grieving son surrounded by a crowd who can’t possibly understand him, but who nonetheless grabs flowers from her grave.
The other early newspaper work is hit and miss, light entertainment and civic tomfoolery, before escalating to something else. A funny four-part series for the New York Herald Tribune about a live-in program to quit smoking gives Portis the passing character of Miss Rosalie Nadersen, who “applauds at all the lectures and films, and she jokes around a lot.” I perked up. I recognized a Portis type. By the second part, when the nicotine fits are more dire:
It was smack in the middle of the Five Day Plan to Stop Smoking, and a crucial day. Everyone was drowsy and mopey. Everyone except Miss Rosalie Nadersen, who is still up to her old high jinx. During calisthenics, while doing a kind of side-way walk, she kept walking right out of the building. It was a joke.
I’m not sure I would have known what to make of Miss Nadersen if I didn’t have prior experience with Portis. All the cues are lined up: a newspaperman, rumpled and looking for angles, stressed to the breaking point, colliding with a cheerful fanatic, described with slightly stilted, underplayed language. And that last inert declarative sentence, kerplunk. Starting with this article, I relaxed. I wasn’t going to try to graft onto these early stories the greatness of the later books; rather something the opposite was happening. Reading the Portis novels primed me for how to read this book — carefully. Otherwise, I would have missed the dry wit that is genuinely there.
A series of 1963 articles about simmering racial tensions is fascinating, but for different reasons. Whenever race comes up in Portis, I find myself holding my breath a little, in that I’m not quite sure if the humor works the same way for a Gen X Angeleno as it does for a septugenarian from Little Rock. He plays with types, and diction, and sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. So it’s a relief to see his coverage of the civil rights movement. It’s compassionate, frustrated, and manages to seem moral without preaching. There’s no grand summation of the era here. The articles (“Birmingham’s Trigger Tension” and “How the Night Exploded into Terror” for instance) are a daily reporter’s ground-level coverage of moments in a series of confounding days. He has an eye for detail. Medgar Evars “staggered 30 feet through a carport and alongside a bed of red petunias before he fell on the back steps,” the bullet that killed him having “bounced off the refrigerator onto a counter near the sink and rolled under a watermelon.”
But more importantly he has an even better eye for motive. When George Wallace stands in the doorway to block African American students from entering the University of Alabama campus, Portis describes it as theater, “a well-staged pageant from start to finish” designed cynically to appeal to voters. I know very little about that time and place, but now it makes more sense to me.
There are several travel essays, including a meandering and almost maddeningly low-key ramble through a now-extinct Baja, and his search for the origin of the Ouachita River. The latter incorporates his passion for history. Portis seems to comb through contemporary accounts in search of the witness who will tell him what actual angle De Soto had when exploring, as if perhaps there had been a Charles Portis among his men. The Baja story has small moments to remind you of Dog of the South (mostly attempts to fix a crappy truck) but “The Forgotten River” contains this gem:
I paid $1.23 a gallon for regular gasoline at El Dorado, the oil city, more than at any other place along the way. One the other hand, my motel room cost only $21, and, a bonus, a man was practicing law in the next room. Two strange law offices in one day. This one, an ordinary motel room, had the lawyer’s shingle fastened to the door, just above the number, with a single screw in the middle. There were bits of Scotch tape on the ends to keep it from tilting, perhaps demoralizing his customers. I was all set if I woke up in the night with a start and the urgent feeling that I should dictate a codicil to my will.
The well-chosen language: bonus, demoralizing, codicil. The detail of the single screw and the Scotch tape. I learned an important lesson in typing that out: I tried to cut a phrase or two for length but then the meaning got all goofed up on me. You can’t actually slip a word in or out.
That said, I think there are whole pieces that are weaker than the rest. “That New Sound from Nashville” is a good survey of a thriving country music mecca in 1966, but many people could have written it. “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” more of a sketch than a short story, is just fine.
You’ll run into moments like that here, the lesser parts of his oeuthre, the bits you and I will still try to love. But never mind much, because the book contains an unexpected discovery: Portis’s only produced play, Delray’s New Moon. Editor Jennings writes that Portis didn’t seem to have a copy of it, a couple of actors weren’t sure if they’d kept theirs, and its inclusion here seems to almost be happenstance.
Oh my. Let’s get this out of the way: it’s hard to tell how it would stage, but as a read, Delray’s New Moon is a fitting addition to the canon. I’d dare to call it his sixth major work. It’s that funny.
Produced once, at the Arkansas Repertory Theater’s Second Stage (second stage? Seriously?) in 1996, the set up is this: an old rooming house style hotel is about to become a dance hall. The elderly residents are lined up to catch a van that will take them to the undoubtedly awful Avalon, a nursing home with the oft-repeated motto, “The days are full at Avalon and before you know it, it’s bedtime!” They signed up as part of a Special Value Package.
Understandably, they don’t want to go. Another old man, Mr. Palfrey, is in transit from one maddening daughter’s home to another. Complications ensue. People ignore each other and tell long-winded stories. They ask each other the wrong questions. They list with fervor different types of foliage and snakes as if that qualifies their identities.
For instance, here, two old men and one old woman who have known each other for years explain things to newcomer Mr. Palfrey:
MR. NIBLIS: No, I’ve never been blessed with a wife. My mother is one of eleven children and my father was the youngest of seven brothers, and here I am a barren old man with neither chick nor child. One day I’ll have to answer for that.
MR. MINGO: Not that he didn’t make the effort. He tells me he proposed marriage to three or four women along the way.
MR. NIBLIS: More than that.
MR. MINGO: He just couldn’t get very far with them.
MR. NIBLIS: I couldn’t get anywhere with them. One summer in Nashville I was rebuffed by five women in a row. Some of those women were wearing hats and carrying purses — like Mrs. Vetch here — and some were not. Every one of them found me unpleasant and rejected me out of hand.
MRS. VETCH: Can you wonder?
MR. NIBLIS: Still, it left me more time for my work. Women will take up a lot of your time. And then there’s the money. I’ve heard it takes a great deal of money to keep them fed and amused.
MR. MINGO: He claims to be a prophet. That was his work.
MRS. VETCH: He tried to kiss some of those ladies.
MR. NIBLIS: Not after I saw how much it alarmed them.
MR. MINGO: “Things are not what they seem.” That was his prophetic message.
It’s hard to take moments out of context and try to explain why they’re funny. Mr. Niblis feeling it’s important to explain that some women, not others, were wearing hats and carrying purses, for instance. The polite, precise and wrong-headed language of “unpleasant” and “rejected” and “fed and amused.” The way the discussion leaves out key information, so we don’t actually see the ladies’ reactions, but we hear about their “alarm” (good word, too), causes us to envision the scene ourselves, forcing us to participate in its awkwardness.
There are fantastic set pieces with similarly expert language from an annoying child, an insane newspaper man (he believes his editorials are important), and many complaints about a missing tenant, Mr. Ramp.
MR. MINGO: One night I saw Mr. Ramp ducking into his room with a plate of finely chopped nuts. The kernals had been chopped into a uniform fineness. He tried to conceal that plate from me. I’m convinced he was keeping some sort of animal in his room.
The dialogue is straight out of a Charles Portis novel. Also: characters fret about the shapes of the feet, some crappy automobiles need jumpstarts, ballgame scores are noted, there are multiple characters with little self-talking secrets of success, and when the matriarch of Avalon arrives, a cheerful descendent of Miss Rosalie Naderson, she has glass in her hair from having crashed her minvan. And that stuff is also like a Charles Portis novel.
But it’s like reading the sheet music for one. I suspect he wrote many passages specifically because they sounded funny, rather than because they would serve an actual production. The act breaks don’t seem to make much sense, the ending is a little Monty Python What’s-all-this-then, and there seem to be long periods where he forgets certain characters are still on stage. I’m not sure it fulfills its job as a play. But I’d love to find out.
— IV —
In Portis’s comedy, everyone asks the wrong questions. That can be a bummer, too. After the play, there’s a long interview about Portis’s newspaper days that manages to fill in some of his history without disturbing his privacy. There are some critical appreciations, and then the book is over.
The introduction has a wise and brief aside called “What You Won’t Find Here,” and it’s meant to acknowledge and defuse all that cult stuff. We want to know so much. Why so few works in print? Does he take so long? Is it because he’s blocked or lazy or too well adjusted to write? Why doesn’t he talk to the press? Is it because he was a reporter? Is it that he has an unborn twin with Tourette’s poking out of his chest? None of that is answered here, because those are the wrong questions. Seriously — what answer would make a difference to us other than killing off some curiosity?
I haven’t mentioned the memoir here. “A Combination of Jacksons,” which appeared in The Atlantic in 1999. My first impression of it, churlishly, was that it lacked focus. Which is a weird thing to disdain about his work. Let’s say that unlike most of his stuff, in this case, that isn’t an asset. You learn small details of Portis’s life, about his family, about the South, about history, but he always seems to look away at inopportune times. It doesn’t add up to a particular revelation.
But then I re-read it. It’s a skeleton key. It’s Portis’s answer to all the right questions we never asked about him. It opens like this, in the watery beds of Cypress and Smackover Creeks, Arkansas:
I made my first experiments in breathing underwater at the age of nine, in 1943. It was something I needed to learn in life so as to be ready to give my pursuing enemies the slip. At that time they were Nazi spies and Japanese saboteurs.
From there we learn about carving reeds (doesn’t go so well), comic books and his early understandings of war. This last information comes from Uncle Satterfield Fielding, who shows him how small Japan is on the map (“he told me the war would be over in ninety days”), and from great-grandfather Alexander Waddell, who had been born in 1847, and who had fought for the Confederacy as a boy soldier. Portis drifts into a half-researched, half-reconstructed recreation of Civil War battles, with guest appearances by Bill Hickok, a brigade of Choctaw cavalry, Jesse and Frank James, some barely-remembered CSA Generals, carpetbaggers…then judgments on carpetbaggers (“That postbellum movement into the South of all the pale cranks in the Midwest, similar to one of those sudden squirrel migrations in the woods, has been overlooked, I think, as a source of some of the weirdness to be met with in our region.”)
At this point I was reminded that one of the pleasures of research is finding the wonderful story told poorly by an amateur historian. Portis has obviously read those kinds of things and is, in this piece, fixing them. But why? The story creeps along the decades and it’s no longer research but the voices of family, then Portis’s own World War II memories serving as exemplars of what we really want to know from history. Not only was there a gas well on Cypress Creek, but Portis explains how he watches a gasoline thief draining off “casing head,” a liquid byproduct, from the well. “There must have been some kind of bleeder valve in that tangle of high-pressure gas pipes, but I’ve forgotten how it worked, if I ever knew. I do seem to remember a Stillson wrench, an adjustable pipe wrench […]”
The gas well was meant to be used legitimately and the thief had an angle. Portis, age nine or so, saw it the way he would see George Wallace’s cynical purpose in standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama. This is what Portis finds important in looking through history, as he becomes a part of it. Not the big movements but petty human motivations and the wonder about why there were no chocolate bars in town in 1943. (Rumor had it, they were sent to the local Japanese internment camp.)
This piece ends with his great grandfather Alec dying at 99 years of age, still dignified, and dressed well, unlike “many of the old-timers I see today, men who went ashore at Tarawa and Anzio, now much reduced in their retirement costume of grotesque white athletic shoes, pastel resort rompers, and white baseball cap crammed down hard on the head, bending the ears.” In other words, men whom Mr. Mingo and Mr. Niblis would reflect upon similarly, men of the Avalon retirement home.
Portis here is answering all the good questions about who he is, and how he makes his fiction, by spilling the beans about his youth, his ancestory and his region’s history. They are linked like strands of DNA. The essay, thus far, says, “this is where I came from.”
The last couple of pages are revelatory, because with a vision, Portis says, “This is where I’m going.” He spies an old man, a hoarder, in a station wagon piled with (he guesses) “his assets, now baggage: bits of chain, rolls of duct tape, forgotten cans of soup, jumper cables tangled around a jack frozen with rust, encrusted bottles of Tabasco sauce, sacks of Indian arrowheads, sacks of silver dimes…” It goes on. Portis recognizes in this man exactly himself, and reflects brilliantly on the coming extinguishment of his lights:
There I was in the flesh, a little more weathered, just a few years from now. The resemblance was close. I saw myself sunk low there under the wheel, even to the string bolo tie with its turquoise slide, and even to that complacent smirk, knowing that all my flashlights and other treasures were right behind me, safely stowed and well hidden from the defiling gaze of others. I could see myself all too clearly in that old butterscotch Pontiac, roaring flat out across the Mexican desert and laying down a streamer of smoke like a crop duster, with a goatherd to note my passing and (I flatter myself) to watch me until I was utterly gone, over a distant hill, and only then would he turn again with his stick to the straying flock. So be it.
And, in his his goodbye to all of us, Portis shows up as a secret master of empathy. He never sees his characters, no matter how ridiculous or how foreign, as “other than,” or as objects to be condescended to. Portis sees himself in that station wagon, as he sees himself in Elvis and Mr. Mingo and Austin Popper and Norwood Pratt and Mattie Ross and Miss Rosalie Naderson and all the rest.
There may or may not be more Portis to come, but with Escape Velocity, he’s given us pretty much everything we need to know.
— V —
There’s still a tiny door open that’s hard to admit to, as it smacks of doubting one of my own arguments.
In the Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons book, three or four drawings are reproduced that aren’t cartoons — one is a few flowers, for instance, and another is a scribble that makes a coronet-style nun’s hat. Barry Moser, in his introduction, wishes he could see more of those, as they seem to have potential. I got on Google and saw that in her years of literary success, O’Connor also painted portraits. And they’re really weird, in a way that might merit more analysis. Or not. Maybe she just drew for the hell of it and I’m only interested because she did it. But if a collection of that stuff comes out, I’ll still look.
I am going to fall for this every time. I just realized that if The Cartoons of Charles Portis is forthcoming, I will purchase it.
A few years ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology of literary writers who had drawn superheroes in their youth. The idea was to publish the work of our teen years, and I’m sure the feelings generated would be embarrassment/humiliation with just a little of “and then look what artists these people later became, oh from what tiny acorns…” Juvenile oeuthre material. I declined. It was an idea that made me uncomfortable.
Secret fact: I still draw. A lot. I haven’t gotten any better than when I was twelve, and the work doesn’t come from the same place as my writing. You’ll never hear me make artistic claims for it. I draw because I’m not very good. I don’t need to be, and that’s a relief.