Charles Portis is one of those writers where I’m always laughing aloud at certain of his sentences and dearly wishing I’d written them myself. Over the past couple of days I’ve been reading Escape Velocity, a hodgepodge of Portis’ early journalism, short fiction, memoir and a three-act play. It’s good stuff. I’ve learned to laugh soundlessly at night, but it’s a good thing Tess is sound sleeper or she’d have been jostled awake by the trembling bed.
I’ve been tiresome about saying this: As an American writer, Portis is right up there with Mark Twain. Maybe even better. I understand that not everybody loves him equally — my daughter Jessie wasn’t as taken with The Dog of the South as I’d hoped, and my son Dave seemed only bemused by Masters of Atlantis. To me they are among the four or five books I would haul to that desert island we hear so much about. Maybe you have to be a certain age for Portis’ view of mid-20th-century America to really resonate.
But if you are that age, and if you’ve read all five of Portis’ novels and wished there were more, this is as good as it gets. In particular I refer you to the play, “Delray’s New Moon,” about a group of oldsters facing relocation to a retirement home that sounds increasingly ominous: “The days are full at Avalon and before you know it, it’s bedtime!” The play was only performed once, in 1996. It’s probably worth the price of the book by itself.
I wrote down a line from it last night, intending to steal it later. Two of the characters are discussing a third, a man with a disturbing smile who always looks “as though he had been dressed hastily by employees of the state.” I just love that: Economical, precise and funny.
Anyway, that’s enough about Charles Portis. If you happen to pick it up sometime, let me know what you think. Meantime, now I’m looking for another book to read. I prefer fiction. Any suggestions?