Describing a Charles Portis book to the uninitiated can be almost as tricky as hanging on to a copy of it. To devotees of the Arkansas novelist’s mordant humor, the urge to lend Norwood or The Dog of the South is often as powerful as the desire to keep and reread them, preferably aloud.
Another problem in getting Portis across is that unlike the big names of Southern Lit who tend to bellow and sweat in their plots and their prose styles, Portis writes laconic tales that often slip by Yankee reviewers like migrating mallards out ahead of a cold front.
Consider, for example, the lament of Gringos’ Jimmy Burns — resident of Merida, Yucatan, reformed smuggler of pre-Columbian artifacts, itinerant trucker, scavenger, and part-time bounty hunter — for a lapsed love affair: ”Our flickering little romance had just about flickered out. She had taken me at first for a colorful Cajun, sucker of crawdad heads, wild dancer to swamp tunes, then lost interest when she found out I was from the Anglo, Arkansas-Texas part of Louisiana. Of our Arklatex folkways she knew nothing. She suspected them to be dark ways, a good deal of sweaty cruel laughter, but of a darkness that wasn’t particularly interesting.”
Like Portis’ previous novels, Gringos concerns the misadventures of a curious assortment of dementos, who in this case have gathered to swap lies and intrigues in a Mexican bar. A trifle eccentric himself, narrator Burns stands out like a Shreveport Rotarian among the expatriate crowd at Shep’s In- Between Club, with its outlaw archaeologists, retired Marines, flying saucer theorists, fugitive Spanish revolutionaries, amateur scholars of ancient Mayan lore, pyramid cranks, and migrating hippies.
But unlike the characters in previous Portis novels, not all of the oddballs here are harmless — particularly a tribe of tóxicos (druggies) in a beat-up Ford station wagon who call themselves the Jumping Jacks. Led by a / charismatic ex-con named Big Dan, this dangerous band has gravitated to Mexico in search of a brand of enlightenment that may require human sacrifice. Like Jimmy Burns’ friend Rudy Kurle, explorer and self-taught expert on the extraterrestrial origins of Mayan civilization, Big Dan and his followers were last seen headed into the jungle in search of a vaguely described location called the City of Dawn. Rumor among competing schools of True Believers suggests unspecified big doings in that mystic spot.
After Kurle’s yellow Checker Marathon turns up abandoned on a muddy track in Chiapas, our hero sets out on the most unlikely rescue mission since The Wizard of Oz — accompanied by an endearing party of adventurers, among them the formidable Ramos, son of Chino, the bravest dog in Mexico. Darker in tone than any other Portis novel and more tightly plotted than any since True Grit, Gringos should add large numbers of new admirers to the novelist’s already devoted fans. A