(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Jimmy Burns, the protagonist and narrator, is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, a former Marine military policeman, and a veteran of combat in Korea. He resides at the Posada Fausto in Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán. Other expatriates living there are Doc Richard Flandin, a self-styled expert on Mayan culture, and Frau Alma Kobold, the invalid widow of a photographer. Doc Flandin affects Frenchness but grew up in Los Angeles. Frau Kobold is bitter, wheelchair-ridden, and chain-smoking. She has for many years been sending Jimmy anonymous hate letters. She sets the incidents in motion which comprise the most tightly woven of Portis’s plots. She writes a letter—again, anonymous—to a flying-saucer newsletter prophesying the appearance of a mysterious El Mago at Likí’n (the City of Dawn), a hilltop ruin across the river in Guatemala.

The predicted event draws Rudy Kurle, an investigator of extraterrestrial visitations, to Mérida. Kurle believes the City of Dawn to be a landing site for visitors from outer space. He is accompanied by Louise Kurle, supposedly Rudy’s wife, a young woman with a degree in human dynamics. She eventually reveals that she is not his wife but his sister. Kurle wanders off down the river and disappears. Jimmy, who earns his living as a freelance teamster, is also an occasional tracer of lost persons. He and his friend Refugio Bautista Osorio go in search of Kurle and the mystical City of Dawn. Portis sends each...

(The entire section is 582 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Gringos is, as its title suggests, a novel about expatriate Americans in Mexico. It is an adventure story, as Portis’s novels sometimes are, and the account of a quest, as Portis’s novels almost always are.

The protagonist and narrator is Jimmy Burns, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, a former Marine military policeman who is both a teamster and a tracer of lost persons. Jimmy resides in a small hotel, the Posada Fausto, in Mérida, in the Yucatán peninsula. Frau Alma Kobold, the wheelchair-ridden, chain-smoking widow of an archaeological photographer, is a fellow resident for whom Jimmy often acts as errand boy. Mérida has a large community of gringos (Americans) who comprise a comic gallery of soldiers of fortune, eccentrics, and misfits.

Jimmy gets what he believes to be a routine job hauling supplies to an archaeological site. While working on his truck in preparation for the trip, he is menaced by a gang of hippies calling themselves the Jumping Jacks. They are led by an aging biker, Dan, whose two lieutenants are toughs with shaved heads and vacant eyes. Other Jumping Jacks are Beany Girl, a tall woman who horrifies Jimmy by urinating in front of everyone, and Red, a girl hardly more than a child. Jimmy later learns that Red is LaJoye Mishell Teeter of Perry, Florida, a runaway for whose return a two thousand dollar reward has been offered. Jimmy faces the hippies down with a shotgun and disables their rattletrap station wagon, but they later escape. During the encounter, Jimmy has learned that the Jumping Jacks are on a quest: They are seeking the inaccessible City of Dawn and a mystical leader known as El Mago.

On his run to the archaeological site, Jimmy meets Rudy Kurle and allows the latter to tag along with him. Jimmy stops to conduct some business with Refugio Bautista Osorio, an old friend with whom he will later team up in a search to which the middle third of the novel is devoted. Rudy is also searching for the City of Dawn, which he believes to be a landing site for visitors from outer space. He takes voluminous notes, and although he is secretive about the information he possesses, he peppers Jimmy with pseudoscientific babble about flying-saucer landings around...

(The entire section is 912 words.)