Krok Zero's Reviews > Masters of Atlantis

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
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Aug 07, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: summer-2011
Read in August, 2011

My favorite Portis, I think. Such perfect command of tone: stone-face deadpan treatment of screwball-nutty material, like the prose equivalent of a Buster Keaton film. The nominal subject is cults and secret societies, but that's just Portis' entry point into the same kind of earnest eccentrics that all his novels are about. These kooks' behavior is presented totally matter-of-factly. This book is so hilarious. Was there a 20th century fiction writer funnier than Portis? I'm failing at writing an interesting review, so I'll just reproduce one of the many LOL-worthy passages. The context of this is that a hack writer has been hired to write the biography of protag Lammar Jimmerson, leader of the Gnomon Society, and Jimmerson (isn't that a hilarious name?) is none too happy with the liberties taken by the biographer:

‘Corpulent genius’ was fair enough. ‘Viselike grip’ was good. It was pleasing to see his oyster eyes described as ‘two live coals.’ The fellow had a touch, all right, but how had he come up with such things as ‘the absolute powers of a Sultan’ and ‘the sacred macaws of Tamputocco’ and ‘Peruvian metals unknown to science’ and ‘the Master awash in his oversize bathtub’ and ‘likes to work with young people’ and ‘a spray of spittle’? Why was he, Lamar Jimmerson, who never raised his voice, shown to be expressing opinions he had never held in such an exclamatory way that droplets of saliva flew from his lips?

Peruvian metals unknown to science.

Found a good review here from which I will also quote:

In his earlier books, specifically the first two, Portis's main characters are guided by what strikes me as a distinctly American brand of optimism and up-by-your-bootstraps tenacity. Masters of Atlantis, then, is about what happens when those same qualities are misguided, or manipulated by delusional hucksters, or both. At any rate, our story is under way, and it is told in a cool, unwavering deadpan that establishes vast chasms of irony as events become more preposterous, beginning with the arrival of Austin Popper, Mr. Jimmerson's on-again off-again spokesman and, without question, one of American literature's most hilarious creations.

Truth. Read this thing.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Pinky (new)

Pinky One of two Portis novels I've yet to read, a situation demanding review. I just started a book that reminds me (over a few short pages) of Portis' precise, gimlet-eyed prose tomfoolery--Busy Monsters. Keep an eye out.

And I run into the same cul-de-sac reviewing some writers--where I feel unable to do anything but point and nod vigorously, reproducing whole chunks from their novels. (McGuane comes to mind....)

Krok Zero Busy Monsters looks like fun. (Wow, a Harold Bloom blurb? How come I hadn't heard of this?)

And yeah, Portis pretty much speaks for himself. It's hard to write about funny writing. (I couldn't summon anything to say about Lipsyte's The Ask for similar reasons.) You gotta check out Masters -- its hilariousness is unique even within the Portisverse.

message 3: by Pinky (new)

Pinky Psst, Krok--I spoke too soon. You've seen Robin Williams perform, right? The guy says a lot of funny things. He also says a much greater number of unfunny things. And the relentless push of his performance--the flop sweat of making us laugh--just always makes me too uncomfortable to enjoy the good material, and I cringe even more intensely at the bad. Contrast him with Zach Galifianakis, a performer whose interests and technique lead him, as well, down many digressive paths, sometimes for comic gold, sometimes a dead end. And yet I LOVE watching him perform; there's an excitement, a sense of seeing craft--he's seeking the joke, not the laugh.

I read 75 pages of this Monsters, and there are some good lines. But it's a Robin Williams. I just can't take it. (Portis, it should be obvious, is in the other camp.)

message 4: by Krok Zero (last edited Aug 07, 2011 07:35PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Krok Zero Ouch. Hard to think of a more damning comparison than Robin Williams. Unless we're talking about Altman's Popeye. (Does Zach G. even do stand-up anymore, now that he's a big movie star? Haven't seen any from him in literally years.) But I know what you mean and that's disappointing. I might check it out for myself just out of curiosity, but with lowered 'spectations.

message 5: by Tom (new)

Tom Good sample and qoute. Never read Portis, but think I'll start here (having already seen two film versions of True Grit). Helpful review.

Mike MacLean I've read everything Portis wrote, I think. All his novels are good, but I've come to regard "Norwood" as perfect gem of a comic epic. It makes me laugh every time I read, But its characters are as heroic as they are funny.

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