Charles Portis is a name that is not going to appear on many lists of favorite authors. There is a good, if simple, reason for this: not enough people have read his work. One of his novels, TRUE GRIT, was made into a film that is well-known for all the wrong reasons and would not necessarily cause one to go running to seek out the novel on which it was based. The result is that readers have tended to shy away from Portis, believing that all of his work is like the film adaptation of one of his novels. This is unfortunate; for Portis is actually an unclassifiable, quirky author with an ability to present the unusual and the unexpected in an offhand but, nonetheless, appealing manner.
Overlook Press has recently reissued five of Portis's novels. One of these, GRINGOS, presents Portis at his best. GRINGOS focuses on the loose American expatriate community in Mexico as seen through the eyes of Jimmy Burns. Burns, initially a dealer in historical artifacts, ekes out a quiet but steady existence as a hauler and erstwhile private investigator. The casualness of his pursuit of these vocations gives him an almost inordinate amount of free time to observe his fellow Americans. Burns's languid outlook give GRINGOS an almost sleepy but never boring viewpoint. While GRINGOS may proceed at a deceptive snails pace, the reader never quite knows what is going to happen. And it is one of Portis's quiet strengths that even when nothing appears to be happening, the reader does not care; the characters in GRINGOS are so unusual, the setting so trashily exotic, that it is impossible to predict reaction or circumstance. The comic setting can take a wrong turn into quiet violence, a heretofore comic character can become quite threatening. These and other qualities imbibe GRINGOS with simultaneous humor and suspense, which ultimately make it difficult to describe and impossible to classify. Readers will be reminded of the quirkiness of Robbins and Vonnegut, the unpredictability of MacCarthy, and the situations (if not the style) of Brautigan.
GRINGOS is an excellent introduction to Charles Portis, an author unjustly ignored and tragically underrated. A remedy to this unfortunate situation would be to read GRINGOS --- and then Portis's other work, even TRUE GRIT. Both are highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 3, 2000