For years Ron Rosenbaum has played John the Baptist to Charles Portis’s Christ, singing hosannas to the novelist whose gas cap he is not worthy to stoop down and unloose. This mission began with Rosenbaum’s 1998 Esquire piece, “Our Least-Known Great Novelist,” which convinced the Overlook Press to reprint Portis’s five novels. In 2002, Rosenbaum named Portis’s Dog of the South the novel he’d most like to force on a neighbor. Today, most reputable style guides require that articles about Portis include a contextualizing graf about Rosenbaum. Why shouldn’t it be so? Jay Jennings, the editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, cheerfully reports that Portis has fallen out of obscurity: “Once at a party in New York, I met novelist Jonathan Lethem and . . . mentioned that [Portis] was our greatest unknown novelist.” “Yes,” Lethem retorted, “he’s everybody’s favorite least-known great novelist.”
Odds are the Library of America has even heard of him. Why doesn’t he have a volume? He’s funnier than Kurt Vonnegut by a country mile, and Escape Velocity, a collection of Portis’s reporting, travel writing, short stories, memoirs, and drama—plus an interview and several appreciations—boasts material superior to what is typically wrung out of microfiche to bolster the reputation of a minor or less-than-prolific writer. The critic Ed Park, whose 2003 Believer essay on Portis is included, writes that of Portis’s five novels, “three [are] masterpieces, though which three is up for debate.” Everything in Escape Velocity is good, but Portis’s travel essays, his memoir “Combinations of Jacksons,” and his play “Delray’s New Moon” are the equal of any of his novels.
“The failure of historians studying the civil rights era to acknowledge and draw upon Portis’s work on the beat in the busy summer of 1963,” writes Jay Jennings, “is a mystery to me.” This reads like what it turns out to be—breathless, fandom-clouded treatment of reportage that is only truly memorable when the odd flash of Portis wit shines through. At a Klan rally, Portis reports that a “man in red” speaking about sickle-cell anemia solemnly warned, “If so much as one drop of nigger blood gets in your baby’s cereal . . . the baby will surely die in one year.” Portis deadpans, “He did not explain how he thought a negro would come to bleed in anyone’s cereal.” It’s a line worthy of Twain.
While Portis’s stories are funny, they are funny after the fashion of an old, slightly dated Shouts & Murmurs column, or perhaps a competent Barthelme imitation. One parodies an Expert Advice hotline; another, bad travel writing; and another mocks journalism by way of a not terribly imaginative conceit involving monkeys and typewriters. There is one excellent story, “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” which draws on the experiences of Portis, a former Marine, in Korea. It is an anomaly in the Portis oeuvre—it is neither funny, nor intended to be—but it’s a moving specimen of his fiction.
Portis’s best-known works are in the picaresque mode; anyone who’s read Norwood, The Dog of the South, or even True Grit has probably also wondered why in the hell On the Road is America’s most treasured road novel. Two of Escape Velocity’s travel pieces, “An Auto Odyssey through Darkest Baja” and “Motel Life, Lower Reaches,” say more about the old, venerable road trip than anything else ever committed to print. It helps that Portis actually knows about cars, their care and feeding, and that this arcana features prominently in his work. But what really helps is being hilarious. Many passages in “Motel Life” do for fleabags what Lucky Jim did for hangovers. Here, Portis has just emerged from a filthy motel pool whose water had a “prickly, tingling feel”:
Here came [the motel’s owner] at a limping trot, shouting at me, “Hey, get out of there! Can’t you read?” I was already climbing out when he started this, and he was still telling me to get out of the pool when I was standing there safe ashore, upright and dripping, before his eyes. . . .
He looked around, baffled, then saw that his DANGER/KEEP OUT/NO SWIMMING sign had fallen from the wire fence. He picked it up and showed it to me. Electricity, it seems, was leaking into the pool water from corroded wires and terminals near the underwater lamps. I asked [him] why he didn’t drain the dangerous electrified pool. Because, he said, it was only the great lateral pressure of all that water that kept the thing from collapsing in on itself, and he didn’t want to lose his pool.
This is, it turns out, a good way to think about Portis’s work: Only the great lateral pressure of his wit-laced nostalgia keeps the old, weird America from collapsing and being lost. This is the feeling one gets reading his memoir “Combinations of Jacksons” in which Civil War trivia vies for the reader’s attention with—and loses to—an account of a boyhood attempt to breathe through bamboo while evading imaginary enemies in a creek. The triumph of nostalgia, of the old order, is the explicit theme of “Delray’s New Moon,” a masterpiece of baroque dialogue in which a coterie of old folks are spared relocation to a retirement community at the eleventh hour.
Many other surprises await the reader in a long interview with Portis. Why not spoil one? One night in Greenwich Village, a reporter from The New York Times repeatedly challenged Portis to an arm-wrestling match. Portis finally obliged, and promptly broke the man’s arm. “A freakish thing,” Portis insists, with characteristic modesty. “A weak bone or something.” His partisans know better. That Times writer made the mistake of tangling with Portis’s beer-lifting, car-fixing, book-writing arm, which is a powerful thing indeed.