Cross-Country Tripping

Jonathan Lethem; photo by Torkil Stavdal

Jonathan Lethem; photo by Torkil Stavdal

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

“Charles Portis is anomalous,” Jonathan Lethem writes in our June 20 issue; he is “force-fielded in a durable glamour of obscurity and frequently championed for revival—‘America’s most remembered forgotten novelist,’ as the writer Mark Dunbar quipped.” On the occasion of a new Library of America edition of Portis’s work, Lethem explores the full career of this brilliant, hilarious, yet self-effacing and often overlooked novelist, from his slim debut, Norwood (1966), through his most successful book, True Grit (1968), to his final masterpiece, Gringos (1991). All of them are driven, as Lethem puts it, by Portis’s “fixity of attention to how the world declines to make sense.”

Lethem himself is more than a little anomalous, a writer who for the past thirty years has skipped between genres and styles over the course of thirteen novels, five short-story collections, two novellas, and a variety of essays, songs, and edited volumes. His books have mixed noir and dystopian science fiction (as in his 1994 debut, Gun, with Occasional Music), or bildungsroman and magical realism (The Fortress of Solitude), or spun out strange new versions of the historical novel (Dissident Gardens) or crime fiction (Motherless Brooklyn). His most recent book, Brooklyn Crime Novel, is only sort of what it says it is.

A few days ago, I e-mailed Lethem to ask him about Portis, science fiction, literary influence, and the joy of road trips.

Gabriel Winslow-Yost: I believe you’re currently driving across the country, which seems a perfect time to talk about Charles Portis. As you write in your essay, one of the most notable features of several of his characters is their “preoccupation with the maintenance of automobiles.” Do you ever find similar feelings coming on, as you drive?

Jonathan Lethem: I’m writing to you from the Redstart Roasters coffeeshop in Pittsburgh on day four of the drive, with two nights to go before I land in Maine. Our schedule is relatively relaxed today, between Pittsburgh and the Catskills, and we’ll likely pull over to look through a few book barns on the way.

It’s funny that you ask me to relate all the cars and driving in Portis to my own experience; such an obvious thought to have, and yet I’d never have had it. I grew up in New York City, which is the only place in the US, I think, where one doesn’t typically grow up with driving as a desire, and as a platform for mating and other coming-of-age rituals. My mother, who was from Queens, never drove. Of my three siblings, one doesn’t drive, the other only sporadically. I didn’t have a license until I was twenty-five. Yet I’ve now crisscrossed the length of the country enough times to lose count. I’m sort of addicted to it. The transfixing-boring road movie that always ends in a totally predictable surprise: I’m across the country! How did I do that? It helps that I have wonderful cousins to visit in the Midwest.

Even before I ever drove, I was in some sense connected to this resonance with road-tripping by proxy, through the archetypes in literature and cinema, just as I’d become interested in the desert west before I ever got there. This was the fault of Portis, but also Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point and Slither. I wrote fiction about cross-country tripping before I even had a license, though I did have my epic hitchhike to draw on.

But I still don’t identify with the car the way Portis does, and certainly not with repairing it. I can’t do more than jumpstart the engine or switch tires, and even those things only under duress. There’s a whole other level entailed in his work, the exalting of the grease-monkey tinkerer, making fixes on the fly with baling wire and duct tape, which roots Portis in a milieu where a lot of people have those capacities or envy them.   

You mention that one of the first places you found Portis being taken seriously was among science fiction writers, despite his work being utterly un–science fictional. Why do you think he found so many fans in the sci-fi world, at a time when he had largely fallen out of print?

There’s a specific reason Portis endeared himself so deeply to science fiction writers, and that’s his fourth novel, Masters of Atlantis. The characters in that book comprise a population not unlike the ufologists, Dianeticists, and hollow-earthers who congregated with the fans and authors of written science fiction through most of the twentieth century. Portis lavishes them with a gentle skepticism, makes them familiar and silly and heartbreaking all at once—it’s an amazing accomplishment.

For the SF writers, savoring Portis’s affectionate debunking was a form of “the narcissism of minor difference,” since they so often found their professional convocations, and the letters columns of their fanzines, thronged by total and sincere crackpots. One of the biggest social rifts in the history of SF concerned whether or not to continue to publish Richard Shaver’s fiction in pulp magazines, once it was clear that Shaver, who wrote about an evil parallel race of humans living inside the hollow earth, not only promoted his stories as revealed fact, but claimed them as testimony from direct personal experience on the interior of our planet. Portis’s precise, delicate, and tongue-in-cheek way of narrating such legacies made the serious writers working in the genre feel embraced.


Apart from that, Portis is an irresistible writer’s writer. Who wouldn’t latch onto him as a favorite?

Do you think Portis has had much influence on your own writing? Or have you consciously drawn on his example in any of your books? I remember thinking that The Feral Detective had a pleasing Portis-ish tone.

I’m tempted to read this question as a kind of a speed trap. I’ve been zipping along happily on the Flattering Implicit Comparison Freeway, and you’ve just tempted me into an explicit self-comparison to one of the funniest writers ever, and a total narrative “natural.” Sure, I’d like to think that The Feral Detective and Amnesia Moon, my two most “road movie” books, both swig from the Portis jug here and there. My tomboy in Girl in Landscape has a little Mattie Ross to her. And some of the Chronic City conspiracies might have arrived by detour through his Masters of Atlantis. But even as we speak, I’ve now pulled over onto the shoulder of this metaphor and can see the cop strolling up in my rear-view, scribbling to loosen the ink in his ball-point pen.

Now that Portis is safe in the Library of America, who’s next? Who is the current greatest underappreciated writer in need of enshrinement?

You mean it’s up to us? Samuel R. Delany, Samuel R. Delany, Samuel R. Delany.

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