(by Charles Portis) (1985)
Yes, you do know something of Charles Portis’ work – he wrote the novel True Grit which was made as a film in 1969 and again in 2010. Rooster Cogburn is shrewd. Lamar Jimmerson, from Gary, Indiana, Master of Atlantis, is not. True Grit is poignant and amusing. Masters of Atlantis is hilarious, a gloriously weird child of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Blaise Cendar’s Moravagine written by a kinder, more whimsical grand master of the hilariously absurd and deluded.
(This is a long review, with more of the plot than we would usually include (no real spoilers), to convey this amazing book’s rich accumulation of ridiculous, deadpan pathos and comedy. We highly recommend that you read the book itself.)
When young Lamar is serving in Chaumont, France (Portis is quite specific about place) during the Great War, he offers Nick, an Albanian, a meal. Nick, it turns out, is actually Mike from Alexandria, an Adept in the Gnomon Society, and he repays Lamar by showing him the Codex Pappus, which contains the secret wisdom of Atlantis, in impenetrable Greek and diagrams of cones and triangles. Mike then confesses that he is an Armenian called Jack, on a mission to determine if any of the Americans in Chaumont are worthy of being initiated into the Society.
After the Night of Figs and the Dark Night of Utter Silence, Lamar becomes Jack’s sole Initiate. Jack is now free to admit that he is in fact Robert, a French Gypsy, who must hasten back to Malta to report the success of the American Mission to the Gnomon Master. Lamar pays Robert in advance for his ceremonial robe – ‘a bookkeeping technicality’. Lamar hears nothing further but isn’t worried, because he has the Codex and Robert’s ‘Poma’ – a conical goatskin cap, which Lamar understands to signify high office. After the war, Lamar goes to Malta, but no-one responds properly to his carefully executed secret Gnomon salutes, the Poma or even the Codex.
Lamar meets an Englishman, Sydney Hen (later Sir Sydney Hen, Baronet) and initiates him into the Gnomon Society. After some time and study, Hen reveals that he must be a Hierophant of Atlantis and Lamar realises that he himself has been Master of Gnomons for perhaps as long as six weeks. They separate, in order to take Gnomonism to the world. Lamar returns to Gary, Indiana and establishes further Pillars of the Gnomon Society across America with the help of his second-in-command, the enterprising draft-dodger and master of disguise, Austin Popper. Jimmerson sets up a temple in Burnette, Indiana for the Gnomon Society and gets down to business on his new book, The Jimmerson Spiral (later joined by The Jimmerson Lag, the lag can be expressed as .6002). Sir Sydney establishes a London Temple for the Gnomon Society (‘Amended Order’).
Jimmerson is joined by further “great seekers of truth”, not least of whom is Professor Golescu. The Professor is an accomplished man, a card-carrying member of many arcane societies, expert in several esoteric arts, and a multitasker: “‘See, not only is Golescu writing with both hands but he is also looking at you and conversing with you at the same time in a most natural way. Hello, good morning, how are you? Good morning, Captain, how are you today, very fine, thank you. And here is Golescu still writing and at the same time having his joke on the telephone. Hello, yes, good morning, this is the Naval Observatory, but no, I am very sorry, I do not know the time. Nine-thirty, ten, who knows? Good morning, that is a beautiful dog, sir, can I know his name please? Good morning to you, madam, the capital of Delaware is Dover...”.
As Golescu says “Romanians are known all over the world for their hilarity“; but his abiding interests are alchemy and the lost civilisation of Mu, on which he has given learned lectures throughout southwestern Europe –
“‘Go to Bucharest or Budapest and say ‘Mu’ to any educated man and he will reply to you, ‘Mu? Ah yes, Golescu.’ In Vienna the same, In Zagreb the same. In Sofia you shouldn’t waste your valuable time. The stinking Bulgars they don’t know nothing about Mu and don’t want to know nothing.'”
Jimmerson knows nothing but disdain for a man who can believe that Mu was the original civilisation on earth, “25,000 years before Atlantis crowned its first king! What a hoax!…How was it that the American government couldn’t put a stop to these misrepresentations and this vicious slander of Atlantis? Or at least put a stop to these cocksure foreigners coming into the country with their irresponsible chatter about Mu?”
Popper and Golescu go to the all-but abandoned mining town of Hogandale, Colorado at the headwaters of the ‘Pig River’ or ‘Nasty River’ to harvest gold from bagweed. They will of course release the gold in ‘measured driblets’ so as not to ‘swamp the market’. Popper refuses to believe that Golescu is not an Arab Muslim whose name means Not Many Camels.
“By way of a cover story, Popper introduced himself to the citizens of Hogandale as Commander DeWitt Farnsworth of Naval Intelligence, lately wounded in the Philippines. He affected a limp and wore a soft black hat and Lincolnesque shawl. He had come to the mountains to convalesce in the sparkling air, as well as to help his refugee friend, Dr. Omar Baroody, with his sticky experiments in weed saps, from which he hoped to develop a new kind of rubber, so desperately needed in the war effort. Herr Hitler and General Tojo would give a good deal to know Dr Baroody’s location. As it turned out, no one in Hogandale cared.”
In the meantime, Sir Sydney has been travelling between Toronto and Mexico, (where he is known as “the Sphinx of Cuernavaca”). While travelling, “…he paced the forward deck in thought. He walked back and forth in the rain, with a point of light, a bit of St. Elmo’s fire playing about on the brass button atop his Poma’.
Popper is becoming disillusioned and applies for admission to a school for radio announcers in Greenville, South Carolina. “The school was owned and operated by an old army friend. A prompt reply came, offering him the position of dean of the school.” When Popper returns to Jimmerson’s temple after an absence of four years, and reveals himself through the secret dialogue, Popper asks Jimmerson about the former leader of a Gnomonic Pillar –
“‘Tell me, how is Mr Bates?’
‘He’s in a nursing home.’
‘You’re not serious.’
‘His back was hurting and so they pulled all his teeth.’
‘Doing fairly well now?’
‘His back still hurts. He can’t eat anything.’
‘But coming around nicely? Getting proper care?’
‘They don’t turn him over often enough.’
‘Gets up every day and puts on his clothes?’
‘Not altogether, no. Not every day.’
‘Off his feed, you say.’
‘No, he stays hungry. He just can’t chew anything.’
‘But his colour’s good?’
‘Not real good’.
But otherwise fit? Has all his faculties? Takes an interest in community affairs?’
‘Not much, no.’
‘How I’ve missed the old Red Room...’
It is Popper who, at a Senate hearing, gladly admits that the gnomonic writings contain “filler material in the ocular mode”, in order to protect the secret knowledge. “We are obliged to put a lot of matter in there to weary and disgust the reader.” The initiate needs the key to the text, and of course, the key to the key.
Jimmerson decides to run for governor, and a candidate needs a biographer. A journeyman writer friend of Popper’s, (Dub Polton, who also uses the noms de plume W.W. Polton, Jack Fargo, Vince Beaudine, Dr. Klaus Ehrhart, Ethel Decatur Cathcart) writes the biography (Hoosier Wizard) –
“His methods of inquiry were odd, or so they seemed to Mr. Jimmerson. He rejected all suggestions from the subject of the biography and he refused to read any of the Gnomic texts. Whenever Mr. Jimmerson ventured onto that ground, Polton cut him short. ‘Nobody wants to hear about those triangles, Jimmerson. Do I have to keep saying it?.”
Mr. Jimmerson felt that the questions were all all wrong. For one thing, Polton seemed to have the idea that Gnomonism had come out of the Andes. He kept asking about ‘your curious beacons’, landing strips in Peru’, ‘the pre-Incan race of giants’ and ‘the sacred plaza of Cuzco.’ He pressed the Master about his ‘prophecies’ and his ‘harsh discipline’ and his ‘uncanny power to pick up signals from outer space, a power which Mr Jimmerson had never claimed to possess. At the same time Mr Jimmerson had to admire the man’s virtuosity as a reporter, “for in all these hours of grilling Polton took not a single note“.
Some characters are captured in a sentence. Jimmerson and his erstwhile wife (Sir Sydney’s sister, Fanny) do not see their son often, “…he had his own life now in Japanese puppet theatre, and of course his own chums in the close-knit puppeteer community in Greenwich Village“. A Senator speaks with “that bass organ note that had caused so many cheap radio speakers in west Texas to shudder and bottom out“,
Others require more description, often very funny indeed –
“The confidential records showed that Ed had been discharged from the Army for attempting to chloroform women on a government reservation. The police in several cities suspected him of stealing car batteries and of vinyl slitting. His mother kept a costume jewellery stall at a flea market in Omaha and Ed had once tried to run her down with her own car, while she was in the stall. He had destroyed the fixtures in a North Platte bus station after losing some money in a vending machine, and had twice set fire to his hospital ward. The medical report stated that…while working as a hospital orderly he had a recurring daydream in which he was a green-smocked physician with flashing scalpel. It went on to speak of his ‘rabbit dentition’, to describe him simply as ‘odd’, and to say that he was ‘disgusted by people crazier than he is.’ Ed’s trade was vinyl repair, learned in a government hospital, though it was indicated in the records that Ed had opened many more breaches with his razor blade than he had ever closed with his invisible patches, so called, which leaped to the eye and never held on for long, anyway,” Ed’s conversation with another acolyte, Babcock, in their final journey from the Temple is worth the admission price alone.
Any novel which can be likened to an O’Connor / Cendars hybrid can be expected to wind down to a grim and shabby end, but it’s all funny. Very, very funny and you should read it.