I honestly have no idea how to describe this book to people who haven’t read it before. I’ve struggled in the days since I’ve finished it to figure out how to summarize it, but it’s just so insane, I don’t know if I adequately can. But I’ll try.
Masters of Atlantis is a book by Charles Portis. Yes, the guy who wrote True Grit, and no it has nothing to do with Aquaman. So, with those obvious questions out of the way, let me jump into a broad attempt at penning my thoughts on this book.
It’s crazy is what it is. I haven’t read Dog of the South or Gringos, so I can’t really just this by Portis’ other works. I did read True Grit, which I enjoyed, but that’s a bit of a different animal given its western backdrop. What genre does this book fall into? Comedy is about all I can say. But it’s not slapstick or jokes. Rather, the humor is a category of its own I’ll just have to label “Portis.” It comes from the insane chicanery of this book.
It opens during World War I in France. An enlisted man named Lamar Jimmerson meets a homeless man and treats him to dinner. So moved by this generosity, the homeless man offers him a mysterious book called the Codex Pappus. It’s a handwritten book containing the lost wisdom of Atlantis, supposedly.
While most would see this as a scam (Jimmerson pays the beggar $200 for a cloak and to be inducted into the secret society of this book), the poor soldier falls right for it. He takes the book full of numbers and triangles and founds an entire secret society on it. They’re called Gnomons.
He eventually returns to the states, and the book chronicles the ups and downs as he establishes this cult and uses it to build wealth. He becomes the ultimate conman who both buys and sells his own product. A gaggle of other con men come into his orbit through this cult, all with their own swindling ways, and it’s just a delight to watch them flourish and flounder through the decades with made-up titles and nonsense “science.”
And that’s really what’s so great about this book. It’s a fantastic romp through the mind of these paranoid con men who bicker among themselves as they lie and cheat to eat.
I don’t normally read books like this. I tend to stay in my comfort zone of westerns, science fiction and maybe a little fantasy now and then. I kind of picked this up on a whim in the library, wanting to say I’ve read more than just Portis’ True Grit. Now I can say I have.
I didn’t really like any of the characters. They’re kind of all pretty bad. . . okay, really bad. I hated them all. And if there was one thing this novel could have used, it would have been just one smart person trying (and failing) to save all these con men.
The length of the book is perfect, and I was honestly surprised Portis was able to keep this insane story going for 200+ pages without making it feel tiresome.
There were so many times the absurdity got to a level where I had to stop reading, look up, and ask myself what I’d just read. Then I’d laugh and go right back into it.
Masters of Atlantis is a solid read, though I can’t say it’d fit everyone’s tastes. Some might find it a bit boring if they don’t get Portis’ sense of insane humor. I’ll give it a solid 4/5 stars.
You can pick the book up on Amazon here.