Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Gringos, said one reviewer at the time of its publication, would be hard to categorize. Would it be found on the bookstore shelves under adventure, humor, or general fiction? Gringos is not the first Portis novel to resist classification. Norwood (1966) and The Dog of the South (1979) are clearly comic novels. The protagonists, Norwood Pratt and Ray Midge, are innocents. Like Don Quixote, each man inhabits a world of his own creation as he conducts his quest. True Grit, on the other hand, blurs the generic lines. It has been called a Western, and that designation was no doubt reinforced by the successful film adaptation starring John Wayne. Yet anyone reading True Grit immediately realizes that “Western” is too limited a term to describe the book. Masters of Atlantis (1985), Portis’s fourth and quirkiest novel, has been found shelved under the heading of science fiction. Yet whatever Masters of Atlantis is—and that is not easy to say—it is not science fiction.

Portis is a regional writer, in the sense that his novels are either set in the South or feature Southern protagonists (like Jimmy Burns in Gringos). He is a master of the dialect of the Arklatex, Jimmy’s native soil. His novels, however, have much more than a regional appeal. Portis is not an experimenter in fiction. He uses traditional forms, and although his plots are loosely constructed, his scenes are written with precision and economy. In Gringos, he once again proves that he is a major comic writer by displaying the wit, the unpretentious charm, and the affirmative qualities that have won him a loyal readership.