Masters of Atlantis ~ Charles Portis

As I was reading this, I had the nagging sense that I had read this before. I’m still not sure I haven’t. There are some parts which seem oddly familiar, but still others that seemed new. I had an idea that Coover’s Origin of the Brunists may have been what I was thinking of, but after brushing up on that one, no. Still, it is a religious farce, at tines sneaky-funny.

The religion, or belief system, starts out as a swindle, when a supposed text of the lost city of Atlantis (the Codex Pappus) is sold to Lamar Jimmerson, newly discharged from the military. He meets a like minded individual named Sydney Hen. Soon Lamar has married Hen’s sister (Fanny) and they have decided to split up the territory: Lamar will hold sway in the Americas, while Sydney will tend to Europe and Asia. The worldwide Gnomon society is born – with sacred and obscure  texts and tracts, and only a fuzzy idea of what their society is all about. Soon of course, there is the inevitable schism, when during the war, Hen flees to Canada, and the two branches go their separate ways.

Austin Popper comes along and brings new ideas to the society (at least the Jimmerson side of it). Popper is the con-man’s con-man. He encourages Jimmerson to publish. Even has him make an aborted run for political office. But Popper tends to disappear, go on drunken binges, change his identity and show back up every 10 years or so. His mission is to popularize the cult, bring it to the masses, and for awhile he’s successful. Alchemy is one of the mystical beliefs of Gnomonism, and Popper goes of with a man to Colorado to extract gold from a weed that has a special knack of doing this very thing.  Of course, this is ultimately uh…fool’s gold, but a funny interlude nonetheless.

The women in the novel are an interesting group. Mostly grounded, they do the real work, make the real money. They support their men, mostly in the background.

There was a lot to be said for the ladies….apart from their physical charms. They were loyal. Hard workers. They were on the whole a civilizing force and had made good fathers and useful citizens out of many a slavering brute. Women were brave too and not the least bit squeamish about the corruptions of the flesh. If anything they were more attracted to that muck. All those nurses. At the same time you must keep them in check or they would drive you crazy. They would presume and push. They were contentious, unreasonable, expensive, randomly vicious and would demand far too much of your attention. There was nothing meaner than a mean woman. With their gabble and nagging they could give you a preview of Hell. But that was the worst of it and there was much to be said for them.

Women. The men attached to the society have their heads in the clouds or are buffoons. They are the true believers. The rest of us are merely Perfect Strangers.


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