Gringos

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the judgment of Charles Portis’ devoted fans, he doesn’t produce books nearly often enough. In a career that began with NORWOOD in 1966, GRINGOS is only his fifth novel, and there has been more than a five-year wait since its predecessor, MASTERS OF ATLANTIS (1985). That wonderfully quirky tale of benign cranks and inept con-men deserved a much better reception than it got, but it isn’t the first Portis to give to a potential convert. GRINGOS, however, is a marvelous introduction to the world of one of the funniest—and finest—contemporary American writers.

Like all of Portis’ novels except NORWOOD, GRINGOS is a first-person narrative, and much of its charm resides in the beguiling voice of its narrator and protagonist, Jimmy Burns. A native of Louisiana, the forty-one-year-old Burns is a longtime resident of Merida, on the Yucatan peninsula. He has made a living in various ways, most notably in the high-stakes business of discovering and selling pre-Columbian antiquities; as the novel begins, he is doing small hauling jobs with his venerable Chevy truck and keeping an eye out for runaways and fugitives (who will bring a finder’s fee).

Burns’s routine is interrupted by a series of seemingly unrelated events leading to a confrontation with a murderous hippie presiding over a bizarre New Age gathering on a pyramid in the jungle. GRINGOS is a detective story of sorts, with Burns the hard-boiled knight errant, and a roundabout love story, too; the framework of the plot accommodates encounters with a whole gallery of characters such as only Portis could create, ranging from maverick archaeologist Doc Flandin to the mysterious beggar known as El Obispo. Readers will finish this book...

(The entire section is 703 words.)