Monday, May 16, 2011

On the bummery with Charles Portis and the Masters of Atlantis

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Last week I promised (threatened?) more selections from Charles Portis's wonderfully strange Masters of Atlantis, and today I deliver!

The following exchange is from a grilling that Gnomon society aide-de-camp Austin Popper endures before the Texas State Legislature, which is worried about the recent arrival in the state of a handful of Gnomons, whom they fear are insurrectionists, malcontents, Communists, etc. I'm going to quote at greater length than I ordinarily would, simply because a lot of the comedy in this scene comes from the twists and turns of the questioning, which are as emphatic as they are ridiculous:
"But you did not always travel in such style, did you? With attendants and a briefcase. I'm thinking now of your years on the road as a bum."

"I was a tramp, yes, sir. I was down and out. I've never tried to conceal that."

"A drunken bum?"

"Yes, sir."

"Calling yourself Wally Wilson?"

"I believe I did use that name at one time."

"Sleeping in haystacks? Stealing laundry off clotheslines and hot pies from the windowsills of isolated farmhouses? Leaving cryptic hobo marks scrawled on fence posts and the trunks of trees?"

"No, sir, I was very much an urban tramp. No haystacks or barns for me. Mostly I walked the city streets wearing cast-off clothes, with overcoat sleeves hanging down to my knuckles. I did live in a box once for about a week. I went from a Temple to a box, so steep was my fall."

"A big crate? A packing case of some kind?"

"A pasteboard box."

"Under a viaduct in the warehouse district of Chicago?"

"No, sir, it was in a downtown park in one of our eastern cities."

"A long box you could stretch out in?"

"A short one. Mr. Moaler lives in what I would call a long box. Mine was very compact. When it snowed I had to squat in it all night with my head between my knees like a yogi or a magician's assistant. Then when morning came I had to hail a policeman or some other early riser to help get my numb legs straightened out again. "

"More a stiff garment than a house?"

"Yes, sir."

"Hunkered down there in your box, slapping at imaginary insects on your body. Your only comfort a bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack. Supporting yourself with petty thievery, always on the run, with Dobermans snapping at your buttocks. Not a pretty picture."

"It was cheap rum."

"The clear kind?"

"The dark kind."

"As an urban bum, Mr. Popper, did you often stagger into the middle of busy intersections with your gummy eyes and make comical, drunken attempts to direct traffic?"

"No, sir. In my worst delirium I never interfered with the flow of traffic. I never drank any hair tonic either."

Now, I know I'm unusually susceptible to this sort of thing--a friend's son once arrived at the ballpark armed with questions about hobos he'd been saving up until he saw me again--but is it possible to read that exchange without laughing? Without wanting to read the whole book? And--here I know I'm edging ever farther onto that limb--without wishing that this were the way the whole world was all the time?

1 comment:

  1. I adore Charles Portis. He has never written a bad or even indifferent novel- of course he has rationed us. He used to be a reporter in Little Rock and went (as I maybe incorrectly recall) by Buddy or Ace or something of that kind. I met him once, in a bookstore in which he was shopping. He was so half-apparent, so self-abnegating- I had heard that he was extraordinarily reclusive, but I imagine, were they in the same room he would have made Salinger look like Siegfried AND Roy. He still had a trace of the jaunty "His Girl Friday" type reporter in his manner but it was just a very little bit of that crust left.
    He has no living equals amongst Southern novelists. He is grossly underappreciated- I am so glad to find another fan!