Master of Atlantis: Charles Portis, the South’s Salinger? – Trevor Seigler

In the film Salinger, Tom Wolfe tells the story of how J.D. Salinger and Charles Portis shared a flight once. Portis was one of the passengers on an old propeller-plane airliner when he overheard two guys in the seats ahead of him talking over the roar of the engines. He realized that one of the passengers, “Jerry,” was the reclusive author of The Catcher In the Rye and that this was the scoop of a lifetime. Portis introduced himself to Salinger after the plane landed (he was working for the Hearld-Tribune at the time) and was greeted by Jerry’s panic-stricken plea to be left alone.

There’s a certain irony in having the publicity-shy Salinger pursued by a writer who is also similarly reclusive, or at least whose published output (five novels over thirty years) isn’t much more than Salinger’s one novel and three or four story collections. I’m not sure if Charles Portis discourages journalists from seeking him out at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. If there’s a cult around him like that of Salinger, it’s not quite the same. Portis has had his work turned into film (True Grit twice, and his debut novel Norwood); Salinger famously declined offers to have Holden Caulfield played by (of all people) Jerry Lewis.

I first came across Portis through film, seeing the Coen Brothers’ take on Rooster Cogburn and seeking out the novel to read later (during a particularly grueling Clemson football game during the 2011 season, I read most of the book in one sitting. If the Tigers had lost that game, I’d likely have thrown down the novel and never gone near another Portis book). In his hands, Mattie Ross came alive; a fourteen-year-old girl who was smarter and more determined than many of the adults around her to bring her father’s killer to justice. Rooster Cogburn, former Confederate guerrilla turned federal marshall, was an alcoholic with an itchy trigger finger who nonetheless earned the reader’s heart by the end of the book when he raced against time to save Mattie from the poison of a snakebite. As she, Cogburn, and fellow lawman LeBoeuf (an obsequious Texas Ranger) pursue Tom Chaney into the Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), Portis weaves a Western that doesn’t flinch from the genre conventions (good versus evil, shoot-outs, the individual versus nature), but he plays with readers’ expectations and manages to make what could be a very serious story a comic masterpiece.

That it took me almost another year before I got around to another Portis novel is on me (there were plenty of nail-biter Clemson games that season that I could’ve used the distraction). But I picked up Norwood and Gringos from Clemson’s trusty university library. Norwood was a delight, a road-trip story in which a naive Army veteran gets his life turned upside down while working for a shady businessman. Gringos wasn’t quite as good (it followed an American expatriate in the Yucatan peninsula who gets involved with bloodthirsty hippies and UFOs), but it was still entertaining. I had two novels down to go (The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis), but I’ll be damned if I could find any copies anywhere. I’d been lucky that Norwood and Gringos were in the library, but the last two were tantalizingly out of reach. The new film of True Grit had led to a new paperback version of that book being available at bookstores, but even the secondhand books I frequented were barren when it came to Portis’ body of work.

In the late summer of 2013, my luck changed with regards to one of his books; The Dog of the South was sitting on the shelf at one of my beloved secondhand bookstores, all worn-out-looking and yellowed with age. It turned out to be probably my favorite of the Portis canon, with its laconic narrator relating his bizarre journey from Little Rock to the Yucatan coast of Mexico in pursuit of his runaway wife and his stolen car. Ray Midge is the quintessential Portis hero, a man who goes about the most extraordinary circumstances with his focus laser-like on a goal that distracts him from the bizarre characters he encounters along the way. If there hasn’t been talk before of making a film out of this book, there should be. It’s right in the Coen Brothers’ wheelhouse.

As 2014 began, a random online search uncovered the fact that Portis’ last two books (Masters of Atlantis and a collection of non-fiction and old journalism pieces) weren’t out of reach but tantalizingly at libraries where I had no membership, there for the taking if I could just request an inter-library loan with my home branch. So I requested Masters, a satire on religions of recent vintage, the kinds that took advantage of naive simple-folks and peopled by sly hucksters who never admitted the truth if it meant they’d miss out on a dollar. Sounds a lot like Scientology, if you ask me. I’m putting off requesting the non-fiction collection, because I don’t like to read an author’s books one after the other without some sort of break. Also, I just want to savor the fact that, while I’m close to completing the Charles Portis marathon, there lies one last hurdle out there, within reach but not quite in my grasp.

So is Portis really a Southern Salinger? Here’s where I undercut my original argument, at least a little: he is but he isn’t. Salinger built his mystique by rejecting the fame that came upon him with the publication of Catcher; Portis had a brief period of fame thanks to the original film version of True Grit, but he became one of those authors whose work had to be sought out (as I did, years later). He’s more like Thomas Pynchon in that sense, with the staggered time between novels published (though Pynchon is as camera-shy as Salinger was, with few documented photos beyond the ones of him as a young man. He has been on The Simpsons twice, albeit with a bag over his head). And as the documentary I watched on Salinger points out, Jerry wasn’t quite as “reclusive” as legend; he sought out attention, albeit on his terms. Whether he knew that holding himself just out of reach made his readers that much more determined to track him down or it was a happy accident of his retreat into New Hampshire, he milked it for the last forty-plus years of his life. After 1965, Salinger didn’t publish a thing; Portis was just getting started, with Norwood coming out the next year (True Grit followed in 1968, then Dog of the South in 1979, Masters of Atlantis in 1985, and Gringos in 1990). Some literary theorists postulated that Salinger and Pynchon were one and the same, and later reclusive writer W.P. Kinsella made Salinger a character in Shoeless Joe (the basis for the film Field of Dreams). If Salinger really wanted to be left alone, he might have published more, had his fame decrease as each new work either added to or diminished the impact of Holden Caulfield and the Glass family, and seen the world lose interest as it inevitably does.

Portis remains more human than legend; I imagine if I wanted to seek him out in Little Rock, I could find him pretty handily. He’s not likely holed up behind a wall like Salinger, or stockpiling enough arms to equip a small army like Hunter S. Thompson. By virtue of the long periods when he didn’t have anything on the bestseller list, Charles Portis has retained more of his anonymity than Salinger ever did. And indeed, I wouldn’t mind getting him to autograph my copy of The Dog of the South, because I likely wouldn’t hound him with questions about why he never wrote more about Mattie Ross or Ray Midge, I wouldn’t wonder aloud what happened to LeBoeuf or the Gnomons. Portis and Salinger both created worlds into which they introduced unforgettable characters, but Salinger ran from the fame that came to him, while in some sense Portis is still waiting for his chance to shine. As Roy Blount, Jr., puts it in a quote on the back of my paperback copy of True Grit, “Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy [another famously publicity-shy author], but he’d rather be funny.” And amen to that; Charles Portis isn’t really the South’s Salinger, he’s the South’s Charles Portis.

Trevor Seigler is a graduate student and TA at Clemson University, currently working on a Master’s Degree in English and looking to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing after graduation. He is a native of Walhalla, South Carolina. Among his favorite authors are Charles Portis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Barry Hannah, and Thomas Pynchon.

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