Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Charles Portis yet again

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Though I'll cop to being 'round the moon for the novels of Charles Portis, I've only been a fan for a couple of years. (Thanks, Ed Park!) So presumably I can be forgiven for not knowing this story of one of the many times in the past four decades that he's been rediscovered:
The earliest inclusion in my Portis file was a 1984 story from the New York Times. . . . The story told of two bookstore employees in New York who were so smitten with Portis's five-year-old out-of-print novel The Dog of the South that they bought all 183 remaning hardcover copies (it had never appeared in paperback) and set them up as the sole window display in the Madison Avenue Bookshop. The books sold fast, to the curious and to those collared by the hand-selling bookstore staff.
The story comes from Jay Jennings's introduction to the new collection of Portis miscellany that he edited, Escape Velocity. Portis, sadly, is such a strange writer--too funny to be taken up by those who require their great novels to announce themselves as such; too haphazardly regional to be our designated national jester; too earnest in his ironies to be slotted comfortably, well, anywhere--that it seems likely he'll need to be rediscovered in perpetuity, exhumed with the pickaxes of praise once a generation or so.

The very existence of Escape Velocity, then, is a reason for celebration, a sign that for now the Portisean moon is in the seventh house, tarpaper and shotgun though its accompanying adjectives may be. Portis fans don't need my encouragement to plunk down twenty-eight of their ill-gotten dollars for it, but just in case, I'll offer up a passage--selected, mind you, nearly at random--to make my case. It comes from a four-part series on quitting smoking that Portis wrote for the International Herald Tribune in 1962:
Another day of lethargy in this bee-loud glade, trying to kick the smoking habit. It appears every one will make it but me.

I did, however, beat a kid at ping-pong three straight games. He had little short arms and all I had to do was tip the ball over the net out of his reach. So much for his nicotine-free lungs.
To think: the subscribers of 1962 had not a whit of context in which to place those sentences! What on earth would one think, sitting down to his shimmer-weak percolator coffee (and, let's be honest, breakfast cigarette), shaking straight the page, and reading this man's bragging about beating a child? But we know: those paragraphs are pure Portis.

Buy Portis. Read Portis. You'll be the better for it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Levi,
    Thanks for the endorsement. You can't imagine how happy coming upon that line about the short-armed kid made me when I was digging through the Herald-Tribune archives. Glad you enjoyed the collection.