Masters of Atlantis is perhaps Portis’s most curious novel. It deals humorously with a fictional cult not unlike many that flowered and then wilted in twentieth century America. The story begins in 1917. Lamar Jimmerson—an American soldier and, like so many of Portis’s characters, an innocent—is in France with the American Expeditionary Force. For two hundred dollars, a gypsy sells Jimmerson a handwritten Greek manuscript. It is a copy of a book written in legendary Atlantis many thousands of years ago. When the destruction of the city was imminent, the book was sealed in an ivory casket and committed to the waves. This book is the Codex Pappus. After floating at sea for nine hundred years, it washed ashore in Egypt and was found by Hermes Trismegistus. After nine years of diligently studying the book, Hermes is able to read the text. Only after another nine years is he fully able to understand it, thus becoming the first modern Master of the Gnomon Society.
Jimmerson vainly searches on Malta for Pletho Pappus, the Master of Gnomonry, and the Gnomon Temple; however, he does find his first convert, Sidney Hen, a young Englishman. Jimmerson marries Hen’s crippled sister Fanny and returns to the United States. He has fifty copies of an English translation of the Codex printed and sets out to win more converts. Gnomonry languishes during the prosperous and high-spirited 1920’s (Jimmerson wonders if he will ever get the fifty copies off his hands), but it begins to flourish during the...
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