Masters of Atlantis

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Charles Portis, a native of Arkansas, is one of America’s very best comic writers. He is perhaps best known for his wonderful Western, True Grit (1968), which was made into a fine film starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (the role which won for Wayne his only Academy Award for Best Actor). Portis’ other novels—Norwood (1966) and The Dog of the South (1979)—were not as popular, although Norwood was also made into a film, and The Dog of the South enjoys a cult reputation as one of the best least-known novels of the 1970’s.

It is easy to see why Portis has become such an appreciated writer, compared to Mark Twain and Woody Allen by way of Buster Keaton. His protagonists are often befuddled or lost innocents adrift in a vastly complex world. They ask little more than to discover some kind of order, some degree of reason, although their quests may seem foolish or impossible or insignificant. They are surrounded by a rich variety of characters: heroes and villains, madmen and con artists, obsessives and fools. Few of Portis’ characters are actually evil, and, indeed, he presents them with a warmth that is sweet and contagious.

Masters of Atlantis is a lovely addition to Portis’ work. In a sense, it is a one-joke novel. In 1917, near the end of World War I, Corporal Lamar Jimmerson, an American soldier, meets a mysterious stranger who introduces him to the secret society of the Gnomons. The stranger, who has numerous identities but finally admits to the name of Robert, gives Lamar a book written in Greek, the Codex Pappus, which “contained the secret wisdom of Atlantis.” The original manuscript, the stranger explains, came from the Lost Continent. It was sealed in an ivory casket and survived the sinking of the island. After floating for nine hundred years, it was discovered by a Hermes Trismegistus, who then became “the first modern Master of the Gnomon Society.” The present Master, Lamar is told, is one Pletho Pappus, who lives on the island of Malta. Pletho has now ordered that the Society be expanded, and Lamar has been chosen to take the Order to America. Leaving the book in Lamar’s hands and fleecing him of two hundred dollars for a never-delivered ceremonial robe, Robert disappears. The credulous Lamar reflects: “There was no question of [Robert] having run off with the robe money,” for Lamar has the precious book, not to mention Robert’s Poma, a conical goatskin cap “signifying high office.”

As this opening scene suggests, the jest of the book comes from the difference between Lamar’s steadfast faith in this new creed and the reader’s more skeptical perception of the events that are related. The narrative voice is never judgmental; the facts of Lamar’s life are recounted in a masterful deadpan delivery. Portis never encourages the reader’s sense of superiority to Lamar; indeed, there is always the slightest possibility that Lamar—or Mr. Jimmerson, as he is respectfully addressed once he becomes Master of the Gnomons—is wiser in his apparent silliness than those who otherwise fail in the test of faith.

Shortly after being introduced to the mysteries of Gnomonism, Lamar meets an Englishman named Sydney Hen, who shows an immediate interest in Lamar’s discoveries. Although Sydney seems suspect in some ways, Lamar decides to bring him into the Order. “This is marvelous stuff!” Sydney enthuses. “I can’t make head or tail of it!” Soon thereafter, Sydney comes to the conclusion that both he and Lamar are further along in their studies than Lamar had realized. “Can’t you see it, man? You’re already a Master! We’re both Masters! You still don’t see it? Robert was Pletho himself! Your Poma is the Cone of Fate! You and I are beginning the New Cycle of Gnomonism!” Sydney convinces Lamar that he should return to America immediately, while he himself takes charge of Europe and Asia.

This account of the rise and fall of the Gnomon Society in the world covers a period of approximately sixty years. During this time, Mr....

(The entire section is 1680 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXII, October 1, 1985, p. 192.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, August 15, 1985, p. 815.

Library Journal. CX, October 15, 1985, p. 103.

The Nation. CCXLI, November 30, 1985, p. 593.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 27, 1985, p. 32.

The New Yorker. LXI, November 25, 1985, p. 163.

Newsweek. CVI, September 30, 1985, p. 73.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 23, 1985, p. 60.

Texas Monthly. XIII, December, 1985, p. 194.

Washington Post Book World. XV, October 27, 1985, p. 7.