In Gringos, Charles Portis’ festive, comic eye and ear reach us from Yucatan via narrator Jimmy Bums, more or less resident of Mérida, where Americans have congregated to pursue art, novel-writing, archaeology, and leisure. Jimmy has sworn off foraging in Mayan ruins for treasure, but he is at heart a hunter, someone who enjoys going out and shining flashlights in people’s faces to see if they match the descriptions of runaways and convicts from the States. This forager-protagonist has been a staple of Portis novels. Mattie Ross, in True Grit (1968), enlists Rooster Cogburn to help her find her father’s killer. Ray Midge, in The Dog of the South (1979), looks for his runaway wife and the Ford Torino she and her lover are driving. Typical of Portis comedy, that Torino seems as valuable as the wife.
Jimmy Bums, who keeps a double-barreled shotgun handy, howitzer-like in length despite inches he has sawed off the barrels, appears in the first chapter wearing hand-me-down green polyester golf slacks. This attire emphasizes two facts about Jimmy—his semiclownishness and his scavenging. The pants were castoffs from an elderly man whose motor home Jimmy was paid to return to the States when the man and his wife, happy to have reached Mexico in it, could not imagine driving it home. Jimmy quickly changes, however, donning a pair of khakis pressed and starched according to his standards. Portis will have no bum as hero. Jimmy is fastidious after all; he has a code and, above all, practical experience and knowledge. This is Portis’ identity as well. When constructing a comedy, the trick is to know enough about Mayan archaeology, artistic types in Mérida, and UFO believers to make fun of them while keeping them genuine.
The gringos and their habitation of an old Mexican town provide a seriocomic backdrop to the novel’s action. “Gringos” means “gibberish” in Spanish. Jimmy numbers among his acquaintances Pleat (who has owned thirty cars in his lifetime), Minim (a member of the Bowling Hall of Fame), Coney (a painter who hums tunelessly and had an aluminum carburetor melt on the engine block in a car fire), and Mott (army-pensioned and “fifty percent psychologically disabled” according to army doctors, made vulnerable by “whatever the opposite of paranoia is called”). Set these and other expatriates in a place where centuries earlier the Mayans ruled and built their pyramids, and the result is a double-edged take on the subject: The nutty Americans are very nutty indeed, but if modern humans are nutty then how seriously should one regard their respect for the “ancient Mayans”?
Portis’ gift is the deft creation and management of incongruity. “Christmas again in Yucatan,” begins the story. Though Christmas is nothing new to Mexico, a Presbyterian American bounty hunter waking up and going to a Catholic church with the wife (actually sister) of a UFO enthusiast is a reader-catching opening for a book. Portis creates askewness and sees askewness. The Jimmy whom friends consider an opportunistic grave robber is actually a do-gooder with a Christian conscience and innocence. Portis lets Doc Flandin, a wacky but brilliant Mayanist, describe Jimmy: “Jimmy Burns is a pretty good sort of fellow with a mean streak. Hard worker. Solitary as a snake. Punctual. Mutters and mumbles. Trustworthy. Facetious.” Jimmy reads this on a reference Doc wrote for him and ponders the combination of “trustworthy” and “facetious,” which in the Portis cosmos mean pretty much the same. But can the reader trust Doc’s assessment, given his habit of wearing a round cap which, he claims, keeps essential vapors in his skull?
That humans have a hard time talking without making nonsense (the “gibberish” of gringos) is Jimmy’s unstated assumption. A corollary, confirmed by the behavior of archaeologists, UFO enthusiasts, and would-be revolutionaries, is that humans see things that are probably nonexistent. A wild array of seers in a country renowned for irrationality (“There was a catch-all provision in the Mexican constitution whereby any foreigner could be kicked out of the country at any time for any reason at all, or for no stated reason”): That is the recipe for the paradise of incongruity which is Gringos.
Jimmy’s exchange of his polyesters for well-starched khakis suggests that the reader will have a responsible guide—and other characters will have a responsible warder. They are certainly in need of one, in a world full of competing claims to possession of the secret of things. Doc Flandin’s unfinished book will, he says, explain all the mysteries of the Indian civilization from Toltec to Inca. The complexities of Mayan glyphs he will decipher: “When I pressed him he was evasive. ‘I can tell you this much and no more, for the present. These writings are not just calendric piffle.’ Some other kind of piffle then. Thousand-year-old weather reports. Champion Spark Plugs.”
Jimmy’s unofficial job is to keep people from being faked out, for, south of the border, “things had turned around, and now it was the palefaces who were being taken in with beads and trinkets.” Still, salespeople are...