Charles Portis's Guide to the GOP

Does today's Republican Party baffle you? Then I can help. A too-little-known book called Masters of Atlantis explains absolutely everything: They're Gnomons. Gnomons, every last one. While this is an inflammatory charge, I don't think I'm being reckless. If Masters of Atlantis can be trusted—and for reasons that will soon be apparent, I see no reason why it shouldn't be—Gnomonism, or Gnomonry, was introduced to the United States soon after World War I by Lamar Jimmerson, an ex-doughboy reared under Indiana's placid blue sky. While serving in France, he came into possession of a rare copy of the Codex Pappus: the only surviving repository of Atlantean wisdom, "committed to the waves on that terrible day when the rumbling began." 

Swiftly converted from his dabblings in Freemasonry, Jimmerson—whose utter sincerity is in no doubt, by the way—founded the American branch of the Gnomon Society. His proselytizing for Atlantis's teachings won few adherents at first, but Gnomonry's vogue among the helpless during the Great Depression should ring bells today. As late as the 1950s, a by then elderly Jimmerson was a confused but willing candidate for the governorship of Indiana. 

And I hope my fellow Charles Portis fans got a chuckle out of that intro. Masters of Atlantis, which came out in 1985, is one of the best comic novels in 20th-century American literature. Though True Grit is the one Portis title everyone knows, connoisseurs generally rank it low in his much-too-parsimonious output. Then again, most of them boost The Dog of the South as his masterpiece. That makes Masters of Atlantis kinkoids like me, appropriately enough, a cult within a cult. 
The book's best stroke is that the tenets and purpose of Gnomonism are never explained. It appears to have something to do with mathematics (or triangles, anyhow: no doubt to his own posthumous surprise, Pythagoras is revealed to have been a Master of Gnomonry). But its adepts' prattle about the Telluric Currents, the Jimmerson Lag—later augmented by the Jimmerson Spiral to correct a glitch in the great man's calculations—and the "New Cycle" that's either soon to begin or has already begun is marvelous gobbledygook, almost on a par with Newt Gingrich in exelsis. 
The whole conclave of credulous dullards and opportunists turned zealots is exalted by its possession of secret wisdom, no matter how useless, spurious, or nonsensical. "My search for certitudes is over," an enthusiast named Maurice Babcock writes Jimmerson from (cough) Salt Lake City after coming across a copy of 101 Gnomon Facts, then hastens to the Temple in Burnette, Indiana, to assume his new role as Keeper of the Plumes. Yet their shared faith doesn't stop rival factions from developing—the novel's equivalent of the Great Schism happens early on—or members from pursuing their own ambitions to wear the "Poma," a piece of conical headgear with a distinct resemblance to a dunce cap that identifies a Master of Gnomonry. 
Much depends on receptitivity to "the Three Secret Teachers" that the Pappus Codex affirms may appear to an initiate at any time in disguise. Named Nandor—'N and/or?—Principato, and the Lame One in Portis, they're all too easily replaceable in the reader's mind by Leo Strauss, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand. 


That is pure projection, needless to say. Portis devotee that I am, I'd hardly want to insult or even compartmentalize the man's genius by calling Masters of Atlantis political satire, since his jokes apply to rootless American fetishism writ large and the urge to transcend mediocrity that's at the heart of every cult's appeal. The only time I've ever caught him trying to make a political point in his fiction is some embarrassingly forced, banal stuff about "Yanquis" rhyming with "junkies"—well below his usual standard of wit—in 1991's Yucatan-set Gringos, his weakest novel overall. To the despair of his fans, it's also his most recent one, though he's supposedly had another in the works for two decades now.
Nonetheless, when I first read Masters of Atlantis in the early 90s, its 1985 publication date gave me some backup for wondering whether it might represent Portis's predictably cloaked reaction to Reagan's reign. At the very least, Lamar Jimmerson—opaque even to himself, immune to the illogic of a creed he thinks he's only the tranquil vessel for but in fact largely made up from whole cloth, and ultimately uninterested in realities "less substantial to him than the orichalcum spires of Atlantis"—makes a plausible poetic stand-in for the Gipper. While some of his lieutenants are at least semi-conscious charlatans, he's not one himself. Instead, his mystery is all in his earnestness. 
I didn't expect the GOP would end up using Masters of Atlantis as its 2012 election manual, though. Whatever its author's intentions, the shoe fits, right down to one Gnomon leader's belief that "What had happened to Atlantis ... was now happening to America." (Elsewhere, Portis himself calls the country "pelagic America," suggesting this fellow may be trying to lock the barn door well after the sea has rushed in.) The Telluric Currents, the Jimmerson Lag, the New Cycle—would any of that gibberish sound out of place in your average Republican presidential debate? The "I'd rather be red meat than dead" debasements of conservatism and departures from reality that GOP candidates feel obliged to swear by these days don't need to be believed by the speaker or understood by the audience to work their magic. They just need to be dogmatic and uncompromising. 
Vindictive, too, which is where this crew and Lamar Jimmerson's flock part ways. Though one character is described as being "disgusted by people crazier than he is"—hello, Ron Paul?—and hysteria rules, Gnomonism's charm is that it's not bellicose. Its adherents are secure in their addlepated beliefs. In what may be Portis's one and only overestimate of our national character, they don't need to make sense to themselves by finding an Other to demonize. 

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