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Monday, January 9, 2012

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis

Charles Portis, best known as the author of True Grit, displays a genius for invention in each of the four novels of his that I have read. He has a gift for creating memorably stupid characters and placing them in a series of absurd misadventures. Unfortunately that gift is not wedded to a strong storytelling sense. With the exception of True Grit, each of his novels runs out of steam and devolves into nothing more than a series of events, all pitched to the same degree of inanity. As these drag on, the reader is wearied by Mr. Portis’ bleak view of humanity, with its limitless supply of ignorant, gullible, greedy, irredeemable people.

Masters of Atlantis concerns itself with the exploits of Lamar Jimmerson, who as a doughboy in France encounters a mysterious stranger claiming to possess the secrets of the lost colony of Atlantis. He is the leader of a sect called the Gnomons, and Lamar is quite easily taken in. The rest of the novel follows Lamar’s efforts to spread the faith in America, through prosperity during the Depression to inevitable downfall. Along the way Portis introduces other acolytes and rivals, each of them just as relentlessly stupid as the last.

That the novel ends on something of a hopeful note feels less like a moment of redeeming grace than an unearned piece of cheap sentiment, wholly unsupported by the rest of the book.

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