by Charles Portis
Publisher: Overlook Press
1st Edition, ©2000, ISBN: 9781585670932
Trade Paperback, 269 pages
List Price: $15.95 Sale Price: $13.56

On the back of this edition of Gringos, there's a quote by Roy Blount, Jr.: "Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he'd rather be funny." That's wrong. Charles Portis couldn't be Cormac McCarthy because he is  funny. There is no room for McCarthy's bleak fatalism in Portis's work because he has a clearer vision of what this world is actually like.

The narrator of Gringos is Jimmy Burns, former worker of archaeological digs turned truck driver who wants nothing more than to take it easy in Mexico. He's a stereotype, but he's a carefully constructed stereotype and self-parody.

In his quest for unadulterated ease, Burns never upsets his status quo. But the quo's status isn't always in our hands, and what was an idyllic south-of-the-border permanent vacation eventually becomes a nightmare in the form of Louise (whose husband's only goal is to find evidence of UFOs) and a bunch of hippies led by a bad guy with a violent streak (whose goals are inscrutable).

At one point, Burns is doing a transport job, and driving very fast on dangerous roads. One of his passengers says, "You must think the devil is after you."

To which Jimmy Burns replies, "The devil will never catch this truck, Mr. Winkel."

Which is exactly his bland yet hilarious attitude throughout the novel. He observes events, even those in which he's a major player, with a cool detachment that allows him to see people and things (including himself) largely for what they are. What he sees is the human race, in all its humor, absurdity, tragedy, and bad breath.

It would have been easy for Portis to take this novel in a very dark direction. And there are some dark parts, but they don't cast a pall over the entirety. In fact, the darkness serves to contrast the light and make it brighter. Part of this is the brilliant humor, but part is the fact that Portis acknowledges the absurdity of life even as he points to its significance and meaning.

Cormac McCarthy is a great writer, make no mistake. And Charles Portis is a lot like him in many ways, both in terms of style and themes. Yet where McCarthy's most hopeful moment is simply a resolve to keep fighting the darkness, Portis actually believes that the darkness can be defeated, not with grim fortitude, but with laughter straight from the heavens. Gringos is a must-read.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating
FLAWS: Some violence, some language and sexual references
Summary: Portis captures the absurdity, hilarity, and tragedy of life in this bizarre story of American expatriates breaking the law and surviving in Mexico.

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