Escape Velocityby: Charles Portis
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...read more