Charles Portis’s deadpan, eccentric humor

by Mr. Sheehy

Most comic novels — think of anything by P. G. Wodehouse, say, or Ring Lardner — are fairly transparent: they unabashedly try to be funny and let the reader in on the joke. The trick of Mr. Portis’s books, especially the ones told in the first person, is that they pretend to be serious. They’re full of odd events and odd people with names like Norwood Pratt, Raymond Midge and Dr. Reo Symes, inventor of the underappreciated Brewster Method, a miracle cure for arthritis. But these are presented without a wink or a nudge, or any sense that slapstick touches like smooth-talking midgets, bread-fondling deliverymen or elderly gents wearing conical goatskin caps are at all unusual.

Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.

Charles McGrath, capturing the strange comic angles of Charles Portis.

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