So I’m still on my Charles Portis kick, and it’s a kick to be on it. After The Dog of the South and True Grit, I dived into Gringos. Portis’ people spent a lot of time in Mexico and Belize in Dog of the South, and we predictably, given the title, return there in Gringos.
This time, we’re on the Yucutan, mainly in the city of Merida. Once again, my penchant for travel paid off. Since I spent a little time there once, I had a feeling for much of the novel’s locale, which added immensely to my reading experience.
Jimmy Burns originally came south to this ancient-Maya-rich area as a plunderer of artifacts. A criminal by in some peoples’ eyes, he considered himself a benefactor because he was rescuing artifacts from the anonymity of museum basements and distributing them (for $$, of course) to people who would show and enjoy them. The enterprise eventually became too risky, and he could have returned to the states, but he stayed on, getting involved in a leather-tanning business that provided fashionable coats to the rich. When that dried up, he turned to hauling, which is where he is when we meet him.
He enjoys the friendship of a mixture of other ex-pats, antiquities scholars, and a variety of locals. Among the gringos passing through his world are a number of pretty devilish types, including a brutal sort in a van containing what look to be underage runaways. His efforts to i.d. and capture said youngsters fails, but in the course of another venture, he becomes involved in a quest. This is my third Portis and my third Portis quest. Nothing wrong with that. A quest makes a fine structure on which to build a story, but just thought I’d mention it.
Anyhow, he pursues what he believes to be the husband of a friend who has become lost in the wilderness along the river on the Guatemala-Mexico border. The quest leads him to a hippie encampment on the site of a temple ruin where the assembled are awaiting some sort of transfiguring new-age experience at what they believe is the Lost City of Dawn. At the center of all this is a Mago, or wizard who has yet to show. Beyond that, I will tell no more. You must read it to find out.
I will tell you that the source of this occult tale and the circumstances which lead Burns and the other gringos to the site are hilarious as well as dangerous. Portis’ comic sense is like no other I’ve encountered. Cynical. Out there. And true as a well-tuned piano. All the things gringos go to Mexico to do will amaze as well as what they end up doing instead of what they came for. Sort of like life.