by Charles Portis
Charles Portis, born in Arkansas in 1933, is a remarkable and distinctive writer. You may know him as the author of the bestseller True Grit, which has been made into a movie twice – first in 1969 and again in 2010. Portis has written several other novels: Norwood, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos.
Portis was a journalist for several years prior to his career as a novelist, and the descriptive detail of Portis’ first person narratives show evidence of that. But Portis’ deadpan humor is part-and-parcel of his writing style, too, and what at first sight might be taken as a simple transcription of journalistic facts is often shot through with witty, wry humor: “He was a retired bowler and sports poet, and he maintained that bowling was held in even lower esteem than poetry, though it was a close call.”
All of Portis’ novels feature a main character who is an eccentric, and all of them participate in a quest of some kind. In Gringos (1991,The Overlook Press), Portis has built his story around a rather disreputable ex-Marine living in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, who has recently given up illegally excavating and selling Mayan artifacts. When we meet Jimmy Burns, he is working out of his vehicle. Jimmy describes himself as: “[Not] smiling so much, at a loss to say what I did out of my car. My truck rather. Light hauling, odd jobs. No more digging runs. I missed them too, and I didn’t think I would.”
Jimmy is a loner who lives in the town of Mérida in the Yucatan and has tried his hand at a number of money-making schemes. He tracks his past not by dates but by what he was selling at a certain time. Jimmy’s decision to quit dealing in illegal archeological objects marks him as a “good guy” in Gringos. As is typical for Portis, he surrounds his loner main character with lots of unconventional people. Most of these characters are not bad folks, strictly speaking, but are harmless, irritating, off-beat, comical fringe-dwellers. It is not long, though, before we meet a truly bad person, Big Dan.
Ex-con Big Dan and his seven-person gang – who see the ex-con as their New Age spiritual leader – come upon Jimmy when he is alone and working on his truck. Since they have the advantage, they plan to do Jimmy harm and steal his vehicle. Suffice it to say that Jimmy knows how to take care of himself, and Big Dan and his followers are thwarted in their evil attempt. During their skirmish, Jimmy recognizes the face one of the young girls in the group. Sometime after the showdown is over, Jimmy is in his rooms in Mérida looking through large stacks of Blue Sheets – information pages from a location service in Mexico City that list people thought to be in hiding in Mexico. Jimmy hopes to find a notice for a reward for the person who brings in Big Dan. Instead, Jimmy spots a picture of the young teenage girl in Big Dan’s gang. Her name is LaJoye Mishell Teeter, an underage runaway with a reward of $2,000 offered for her return. This young girl and her reward become Jimmy’s quest.
It is not a straight route from this point in the story to the completion of Jimmy’s quest. Any number of smaller adventures and challenges cross his path along the way. Some of the journey is odd, much is humorous, and there are violent episodes. Portis creates a marvelous atmosphere for Jimmy’s quest by never allowing the reader to forget where the story takes place; the sights, sounds, smells and landscape of the Yucatan fill every page. Portis even carries the reader into his own version of Yucatan folklore by creating a beguiling fable:
Through Jimmy we hear the story of a little night dog and an old, crippled man called El Obispo, the Bishop. Both the dog and the man wandered around the tumbledown buildings of Mérida, the little dog uncatchable and the old man continuously muttering. Never were the two seen together. It took Jimmy years to recognize what the old man was mumbling as he marched along. Contrary to popular opinion it was not the rosary he was reciting, but a text from the gospel of Mark (13:2) that tells about the stones of the Temple in Jerusalem being thrown down, one on top of the other.
Stories were whispered around Mérida about what might happen if the old man and the dog were to encounter each other during a certain phase of the moon. Jimmy caught a glimpse of the little dog one night as he was walking through Mérida on the backstreets; the moon, Jimmy noticed, was in the third quarter. He followed the dog that night, but it was always moving away from him, always, it seemed, slipping around another corner. Jimmy tried to stay close behind the dog, but was mysteriously intercepted by a “night watchman” who advised Jimmy to leave the dog alone. The guard also criticized Jimmy’s curiosity, saying he was disappointed that in these modern days a man would believe bygone tales about the moon, a dog and an old man. This type of atmospheric writing keeps the mood otherworldly throughout the book. As far as the man and dog, Portis writes an enigmatic, and touching, conclusion to this shadowy mystery toward the end of Gringos.
If you have read True Grit by Charles Portis and want to try another of his novels, you might choose to read Gringos. It may be his finest, most thoughtful and most satisfying novel.