by Max Brantley
Today's reading: Charles Portis fans old and new should enjoy this extensive biography/critical analysis, including healthy references from some of his lesser-known work. For example, there's a short humor piece he wrote for The New Yorker in 1977, impersonating an "action line" columnist for a newspaper.
Q—My science teacher told me to write a paper on the “detective ants” of Ceylon, and I can’t find anything about these ants. Don’t tell me to go to the library, because I’ve already been there.
A—There are no ants in Ceylon. Your teacher may be thinking of the “journalist ants” of central Burma. These bright-red insects grow to a maximum length of one-quarter inch, and they are tireless workers, scurrying about on the forest floor and gathering tiny facts, which they store in their abdominal sacs. When the sacs are filled, they coat these facts with a kind of nacreous glaze and exchange them for bits of yellow wax manufactured by the smaller and slower “wax ants.” The journalist ants burrow extensive tunnels and galleries beneath Burmese villages, and the villagers, reclining at night on their straw mats, can often hear a steady hum from the earth. This hum is believed to be the ants sifting fine particles of information with their feelers in the dark. Diminutive grunts can sometimes be heard, too, but these are thought to come not from the journalist ants but from their albino slaves, the “butting dwarf ants,” who spend their entire lives tamping wax into tiny storage chambers with their heads.