by Charles Portis
Sometime after my fifth reading of Charles Portis's Gringos, I stopped worrying so much about death, politics, and getting fat, and I started worrying about my car.
Gringos is a compact, hilarious meander in the life of Jimmy Burns, an amateur archaeologist, junk trader, and shade-tree mechanic eking out a transcendently unexamined life in Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. Burns's anxieties are more automotive than existential, a stacking of priorities that, as the book proceeds, begins to resemble a quietly heroic state of grace. These are the sorts of unassailable proverbs you get from Jimmy Burns: "You put things off and then one morning you wake up and say—today I will change the oil in my truck." Repeat this line a few times. It sticks in your head like the answer to a Buddhist koan.
I put Burnsisms into practice all the time. The other day, I was driving around with my lady friend when, out of nowhere, she yelled, "Look, dammit, there are some things going on between us we seriously need to discuss."
"Okay," I said, "but right now I need to listen to that thumping sound, which I think is a blown sway-bar bushing." I don't know what a sway-bar bushing is, but saying these words made everything get calm and quiet so that all I could hear was the soothing drone of the engine and the tranquil grinding of my sweetheart's molars.
Over the course of the novel, Burns's heroics range past the everyday and into more swashbuckling territory. At one point, he's compelled to blow out the brains of a homicidal hippie guru, but he doesn't let the killing ruffle his composure. "Shotgun blast or not at close range, I was still surprised at how fast and clean Dan had gone down," Burns reflects. "I wasn't used to seeing my will so little resisted, having been in sales for so long."
Most people know Charles Portis only as the author of True Grit (whose comic brilliance both the recent Coen brothers adaptation and the 1969 John Wayne film failed to fulfill), but for my money Gringos is his subtlest, funniest, and most valuable for its depth of inarguable wisdom: If your clutch plate doesn't rust to your flywheel and you get a fair price on that set of used tires, you've tasted as much of life's sweet fullness as anyone deserves.
Wells Tower is the author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.