Each time it happens, my wife, Marcia, rolls her eyes and shakes her head.
“You don’t have to share it with me. Really.”
I do anyway. In these times, it’s an addictive impulse to read aloud fictive passages that have made you burst into laughter.
“Gringos,” his 1991 book about a former Indian-tomb-raider trying to mend his mendacious ways in Mexico, begins this way. “Christmas again in Yucatan. . . . Once again there had been no scramble among the hostesses of Merida to see who could get me for Christmas dinner.”
Later, Jimmy goes to see his mentor of sorts, who believes he is dying and so is disposing of his worldly goods. There aren’t many legatees, which leads Jimmy to think he may be given his friend’s elegant house. Instead, he’s presented with 22 cloth handkerchiefs. And some instructions: “They’re not to be put away now. They’re for everyday use. . . . Properly cared for, they will give you years of good service.”
More amusing still is “The Dog of the South,” Portis’s 1979 novel about a young man’s car trip from Arkansas to Belize to win back his wife, who has run off with her first husband. We come to understand why as Ray, who has half-hearted plans to become a math teacher, recounts how he pressed Norma into service as his practice student, only to have her copy the answers from the textbook and submit them “without showing me her step-by-step proofs.”
“I handled it this way with Norma. I said nothing about her dishonesty and simply gave her a score of zero on each test.”
Ray falls in with a doctor who has lost his license for peddling quack treatments. Old and nearly broke, the disgraced medical man says his few friends were worthless rats. Ruing the mess he’s made of things, he muses about a radio singer he once admired, a performer introduced on air as “T. Texas Tyler, the man with a million friends."
"I would think, Now how in the world would they introduce me if I had a singing program on the radio? They couldn’t say ‘The singing doctor,’ because I was no longer a licensed physician. They wouldn’t want to say, ‘The man with a few rat friends,’ and yet anything else would have been a lie. They wouldn’t know what to do. They would just have to point to me and let me start singing when that red light came on.”
It’s the combination of the fantastic characters and situations and the comedic details that build on one another that makes Portis’s humor so irresistible. Take Dupree, the surly social misfit with whom Ray’s wife has run off.
“He wrote abusive letters to the President, calling him a coward and a mangy rat with scabs on his ear, and he even challenged him to a fistfight on Pennsylvania Avenue. This was pretty good coming from a person who had been kayoed in every beer joint in Little Rock, often within the first ten minutes of his arrival.” Why those fights? Because Dupree would “take a seat at a bar and repeat overheard fatuous remarks in a quacking voice like Donald Duck.”
Mind you, Dupree wasn’t much of a physical threat. “I don’t believe we’ve ever had a President, unless it was tiny James Madison with his short arms, who couldn’t have handled Dupree in a fair fight.”
Then there’s the elderly woman who lets Ray read some of her unpublished short stories.
“Melba had broken the transition problem wide open by starting almost every paragraph with ‘Moreover.’ She freely used ‘the former’ and ‘the latter’ and every time I ran into one of them I had to backtrack to see whom she was talking about.”
Moreover, Portis, a Korean War veteran and former newspaperman, died in February at 86 from complications associated with dementia. If you need a dollop of delight in these troubled times, try one of his novels. My bet: Before long, you’ll be reading favorite passages to your partner.