Masters of Atlantis was the fourth novel by Charles Portis, who is customarily identified as the author of True Grit. Familiar to American readers from the two movie versions of it (1969, 2010), True Grit is perfect of its kind, and its kind is not very hard to name. It is a first-person “adventure” novel, like Huckleberry Finn or Lolita, in which stop-and-go travel through an American landscape along with the narrator’s voice and moral intelligence—what is commonly and mistakenly called an unreliable narrator—are at least as significant as the “adventures.” Portis’s other four novels (Masters of Atlantis was followed six years later by Gringos, his last novel so far) are more resistant to classification.
None more so than Masters of Atlantis (1985). I was drawn to it for the same reason I suspect Portis might have been drawn to the subject—he has been called a “cult novelist” so often, with such mind-numbing banality, that an inside look at a real cult was badly needed to break the habit (not that it has). The 24-chapter novel recounts the history of the Gnomon Society, a cross between a secret order and a New Age religion based on “the secret wisdom of Atlantis,” from its first appearance in France in 1917 until its investigation by the Texas state senate and final consolidation some five decades later in the south Texas town of La Coma, “a town notable for its blowing paper.” The best reaction I’ve had so far was from my physical therapist, who asked excitedly what I was reading. I showed her the cover of the Overlook Press reprint edition, and her smile froze on her face as she assumed I was reading a credulous zealot’s account, an esoteric book full of esoteric knowledge, like Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis, which would have numbered me among the “Odd Birds,” a list of whom Lamar Jimmerson, the Master of the Society, culls for men who might be interested in Gnomonism, men
Portis has succeeded Wright Morris as the American novelist who is known for being unknown. There are some suggestive parallels between him and Roger Miller, the singer-songwriter whose name keeps coming up in Portis’s wonderful Saturday Evening Post report on “The New Sound from Nashville,” reprinted in Jay Jennings’s indispensable new “Portis miscellany” Escape Velocity. “He’s a genius,” the songwriter Jan Crutchfield said of Miller. “[H]e was knocking around here for years and couldn’t get anywhere. They didn’t even know what he was trying to do.” Portis advances Miller’s career as
With all that, Masters of Atlantis reads like Wise Blood in ecstatic and sinful union with The Blithedale Romance. Gnomonism has its popularizer and traveling salesman in the figure of Austin Popper, who has “the vulgar inclination to make everything clear” and reduces the demands of becoming an Adept in the Society:
It is a tribute to Portis’s genius to have understood that, while only the popularly successful versions of esoteric spirituality—Edgar Cayce, James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, the Church of Scientology, the Kabbalah Center—ever win much attention in America, there are failures in esoteric spirituality too. And failure gives the lie to the American skepticism that all of these storefront churches and secret orders dedicated to the rediscovery of ancient wisdom are rackets—that they are, in Mr. Jimmerson’s own words, “running a stupendous bluff.” Americans have just as strong a talent for credulity as skepticism.
During the ’thirties, the Gnomon Society enjoys a brief period of success. The Depression leaves some men “so desperate as to seek answers in books.” The Codex Pappus, the Society’s sacred text, which Mr. Jimmerson received from the hands of Pletho Pappus himself in Europe after World War I, goes into a second printing of 5,000 copies. Mr. Jimmerson writes 101 Gnomon Facts, Why I Am a Gnomon, and Tracking the Telluric Currents. The Gnomon Temple is opened in Burnette, Indiana, “the most fashionable suburb of Gary.” But then comes the inevitable schism with the English branch of Gnomonism, and the Society enters into a long period of decline. Mr. Jimmerson is undisturbed. He prefers to think of it as “the right pitch, this drowsy afternoon air of not much going on, a state very close to that of sleep.” At the age of forty-six, he looks forward to his senescence.
Reviewing the novel for the Chicago Tribune, L. J. Davis was irked by Portis’s vagueness about the conceptual content of Gnomonism. “When Kurt Vonnegut set out to invent a religion, bokononism, in his novel Cat’s Cradle, we soon learned exactly what it was, how it worked and what its doctrines were,” Davis said; “Portis vouchsafes us no such insight.” But that was the point. At the height of its popularity, Portis writes (in a passage Davis must have overlooked), Gnomonism was attacked by bishops, “academic rationalists,” Masons, “political engineers,” and newspaper writers:
Compare his treatment of the Gnomon Society to another literary account of uneducated white truth-seekers (because it is they who populate New Age cults). In Scott Spencer’s Men in Black (1995), a serious writer, a writer of autobiographical fiction (the only kind of writing that passes as serious in some quarters), gives up on literary failure and strikes it rich with Visitors from Above, a book about UFO’s. Sam Holland wrote the book to strike it rich, and he is contemptuous of the men and women who have made him successful:
Portis himself was a newspaperman of the old style. Although he worked at the New York Herald Tribune during its glory days—he had the desk behind Tom Wolfe with a full view of the birth of the New Journalism, or at least its backside—Portis recalled that he did “more or less straight newspaper reporting,” the “old, dreary journalism.”
 Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “New Age Religion and Secularization,” Numen 47, Fasc. 3, Religions in the Disenchanted World (2000): 292.