Late last night, while viewing the instructional video that came with the electric dog clippers I bought at Kmart, I started reading "Combinations of Jacksons," the memoir by Charles Portis in the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly. I soon turned off the video and gave Portis' writing the undivided attention it always deserves.
Back in the 1960s, when I was what one of Portis' finely carved characters might call a "wet-behind-the-ears little peckerwood," somebody gave me his first novel, "Norwood." I read it in one sitting and went looking for more Portis, but there wasn't any. Indeed, there wasn't any for a good long time, and unfortunately a good long time is what there always is between his books and magazine articles. Finally, along came his second novel, the one most people know him by, "True Grit." A few years later came "The Dog of the South." After that came my personal favorite (although it's a tough call), "Masters of Atlantis," and several years later, "Gringos."
Last year in Esquire, Ron Rosenbaum wrote an appreciation of Portis, part of which is quoted in the Atlantic's introduction to "Combinations of Jacksons": "[Charles Portis is] a writer who -- if there is any justice in literary history as opposed to literary celebrity -- will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a 20th century Mark Twain." Other writers, Rosenbaum wrote, consider Portis to be "perhaps the least-known great writer in America." And in the Atlantic some years back, Roy Blount Jr. called "Norwood" "the text reread most often by Portis devotees, who say things like 'The way I decided whether to marry my wife: I gave her "Norwood" and waited. And then I heard her laughing upstairs.'"
In "Combinations of Jacksons," Portis, who began his career as a journalist, recalls growing up in a small town in Arkansas during World War II. He tells the story in his singular ingenious fashion -- funny, true and good, loose and loping, tight as a clock.
"I made my first experiments in breathing underwater at the age of nine, in 1943," Portis begins. "It was something I needed to learn in life so as to be ready to give my pursuing enemies the slip. At that time they were Nazi spies and Japanese saboteurs." He continues by describing the old breathing-through-a-reed trick he learned from "movie serials, which pulled me along from one Saturday to the next with such chapter titles as 'Fangs of Doom!' and 'In the Scorpion's Lair!'" And by the third paragraph, he's effortlessly pulling us along with him through an Arkansas forest, with the enemy in close pursuit:
"Agents of the Axis Powers were never far behind me. I could slow them a little with pinecone grenades, but I couldn't stop them. They came crashing through the woods firing their Lugers at me as I raced barefooted for the reed beds of Beech Creek, a last hope. If I could get there in time to make my arrangements, then the agents in their stupid fury would overlook the life-giving reed, one among so many, and, with their boots splashing down eight inches away from my rigid underwater body, go stupidly on their way downstream. "
Like Twain, who for years was seriously underrated and seen more as a comic than a satirist with a gift for profound observation, Portis achieves lightness and gravity simultaneously. Like a big man playing a fife, he doesn't need to blow it hard to make you understand that he could if he wanted to:
"It was the carpetbaggers, of course, who named the county -- a new one, formed largely from the western end of Jefferson County -- for General Grant. Rubbing a little more salt in the open wound, they called the county seat Sheridan. That post-bellum movement into the South of all the pale cranks in the Midwest, similar to one of those sudden squirrel migrations in the woods, has been overlooked, I think, as a source of some of the weirdness to be met with in our region."
OK, then, you're off and running and in the hands of the master. Go read the rest. I'll be here when you get back.
Those of you who did not obey will now be punished by having to read about Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, Michael "Zippety-doo-dah" Eisner and depression in the Far East. Assume the position.
You first, Monsieur Manson -- bow deeply from the knees and pay homage to the man who blazed the heavily made-up trail upon which you're nightly being crucified in arenas across the land. Fans of Alice Cooper, who has transmogrified over the years into an amiable, golf-giddy Dwight Eisenhower with Tiny Tim's hairdo and Tammy Faye's mascara, will be enchanted to hear that "The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper," an 81-track (fer gawd's sake), four-CD career retrospective (the man's a sadist) of Phoenix's most significant contribution to American culture, is coming their way.
And maybe it's just what those sad sacks in Singapore need to cheer them up. A recent study by market researchers Taylor Nelson Sofres found citizens of the island nation to be the most depression-prone among Asians, despite being among the most affluent. Perhaps all that toilet-flushing surveillance ain't so good for the old national morale? On the other hand, perhaps the Singaporeans just need to take in a few Disney cartoons. On the other hand, maybe not (wait, how many hands is that?). Anyway, a story by Aidan Smith in Edinburgh's the Scotsman, reveals that Michael Eisner, the Grand Duke of Disney, is a mopey little midget in the sense of humor department. "Doleful," Smith calls him. "Michael Eisner doesn't do smiling," Smith, a cheeky bloke, writes. "You're not looking for a big, cartoon gnasherfest, that would be too much -- a little lemon grimace will suffice. Go on, Michael, let's see how many gold fillings you can buy for $500 million worth of share options. No chance. When you're the chairman of the world's largest entertainment conglomerate you can do what you want. No smiling."
As you know, I'm not given to reckless overstatement, but I'll hereby go on record that Aidan Smith will never (and I mean never) work for Disney. He refers to the grim chief executive as "the big gorgonzola who won't say cheese." And shows off Eisner showing off the generous spirit he's famous for: "His big bust-up," Smith writes, "was with Jeffrey Katzenberg who, Eisner can't resist reminding us, was chucked out of his summer camp at the age of 13 for playing poker for M&Ms."
He tells of Eisner going on a college date with Jane, the woman to whom he's been married for 30 years. "They cuddled up at a drive-in to watch 'Pinocchio.' Eisner was a long time out of short trousers and yet this was his first Disney film ... Is Eisner for real?" Smith wonders. Finally, the writer almost gets a smile out of Grumpy when he tells the man who makes more money than God that he'll show him his paycheck if Eisner will show his. "I don't need to see yours," Happy says, "but since 1984 I've had the same base salary -- $750,000." Smith responds, "What, you've done the same job for 15 years without a wage rise -- you should have a word with your chairman."
Aidan Smith, come up here and get your award. Then meet Michael Eisner in the parking lot. He wants to tell you a little story about Bambi's mother.