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BOOK REVIEW: Charles Portis

Reviewed: Norwood

by Charles Portis

(Simon & Schuster, 1966)

Charles Portis is a particular American talent with a typical American backstory. Born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, the author’s biography matches up with so many other twentieth century U.S. writers. He enlisted in the Marine Corps (serving in Korea), went to college for a degree in journalism (University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, class of ’58), and developed a clean, lucid style preened by years of working as a journalist (Portis was with the New York Herald-Tribune in the early 1960s and eventually served as London Bureau chief for the paper [a position once held by Karl Marx]). Every American, writer or not, born 1900-1950 lived through, was affected by, and may have even taken part in a war or two; and, yes, plenty of authors used the G.I. Bill to hone their craft before venturing into a world where journalist was still a viable career option. But few of these writers went on to actually capture the essence of America as deftly as Charles Portis has—and fewer manage to do so with such astuteness and wit.

charles portis

The biographical information about Portis out there is not much more in-depth than what was given in the preceding paragraph (which has often led to any mention of his name being followed by the tired and sensational affixation of ‘reclusive author’), but what’s available is more than enough to understand where a novel like Norwood comes from. Portis's 1966 debut offers readers with yet another “write about what you know” success story that for decades has been turning tiny postage stamps of native soil into a diverse, patchwork nation of fertile, literary loam.

Norwood Pratt is, like the author, an ex-Marine who fought in the Korean War, though he only “got in on the tail end of it.” After his father dies, Norwood is granted a hardship discharge and returns home to Ralph, Texas, to look after his sister Vernell, “a heavy, sleepy girl with bad posture.” Although things start off O.K. for our leading man, Vernell soon marries Bill Bird, a man somehow both overbearing and a sponge (“He made an hourly circuit through the kitchen to look in the stove and the refrigerator and all the cabinets and the breadbox and indeed into everything that had a door.”). A nagging $70 debt owed by a fellow Marine living in New York City becomes a way out for the suddenly suffering Norwood.

Thankfully, there's Grady Fring, The Kredit King, who's a Colonel Tom Parker-style deus ex machina that just so happens to need some things (an Oldsmobile 98, a Pontiac Catalina, and a Miss Yvonne Phillips) transported from Texarkana to a garage in Brooklyn. Of course, men wishing to move cars and women across state lines are not to be trusted. Both the plot and the ha-has are a mile a minute as Norwood tries to beguile the tempestuous Miss Phillips before discovering the sordid truth behind the freight left in his charge. Not wishing to run afoul of the law, Norwood quickly finds himself relying on a bread deliveryman to get him to his destination. Things sour, however, when “Norwood noticed that he was poking finger holes in the competitors' loaves. Their eyes met, just for a second, and the bread man looked away. He tried to recover by doing particular things with his hands, as though he had a funny way of arranging bread. Norwood was not deceived.” Once again, our hero is forced to recalibrate his way, this time hopping a train full of flour and traveling to New York in a “ghostly Pillsbury darkness” only to wake up in Philadelphia sans thirty-eight-dollar stovepipe boots.

The trip to New York is clearly informed by Portis’s time spent living there while with the Herald-Tribune and Norwood’s thoughts about and interactions with New York and its inhabitants are both rollicking and revealing. You might expect a story like Norwood to turn a trip to the city into an excuse for so many Country Mouse-isms and Beverly Hillbillies-style gags, but what Portis gives us instead is an insightful and comic sketch that could, in the right artist's hands, probably serve as the framework for a New Yorker cover.

He looked at the movie posters on both sides of Forty-second street and had a glass of beer and some giant corrugated French fries. … Did anyone live upstairs over the movie theaters? … Across the street he watched a man with a beanie at a sewing machine. The man was talking like Donald Duck and sewing names on other beanies. Stella and Fred and Ernie. His workmanship was good. How did he get that job? What did it pay? Being able to sew names and talk like Donald Duck. … There was a man in a Mr. Peanut outfit in front of the Planters place but he was not giving out sample nuts, he was just walking back and forth. The Mr. Peanut casing looked hot. It looked thick enough to give protection against small arms fire.

And things even go on from there with Mr. Peanut and Norwood. Take note: all this is only at the halfway point of a sub-300-page book! To imply that this novel is merely about Norwood Pratt’s quest to retrieve a debt owed to him by a former fellow service member would be akin to summarizing The Big Lebowski as one man’s attempt to find his lost rug.

Traveling from the “oil fields and cotton patches between Stamps, Arkansas and Hooks, Texas” to New York City in stolen cars, freight trains, subways, and plenty of buses, it would not be inappropriate to think of Norwood as a comedic Odyssey. Now, I will exercise some restraint and stop short of calling Charles Portis “our Homer” or “our Joyce” or something equally doctoral, but the route to Ralph is about as straight and unruffled as that famous journey back to Ithaca turned out to be. And like Odysseus of yore, Norwood takes it all in stride: there's Edmund Ratner, “the world's smallest perfect fat man,” some purloined poultry (“Joann the Wonder Hen/ The College Educated Chicken”), and, can you believe it, the $70 still owed to him to deal with before actually getting back home. But when you remember all that humdrummery that Norwood fled, can you call these hijinks anything other than a big success?

Overall, there is much to like in this book, and many angles from which to appreciate it. But what makes Norwood most impressive is how remarkable and tough to come by good comic writing is and always has been. For whatever reason, critics and scholars have too often ignored (or missed) the simple fact that comedy (in print, at least) is far more difficult to execute than tragedy. It really does take a very talented writer, somebody like Flannery O’Connor or Mark Twain or, I think, Charles Portis, to make a stranger (perhaps generations removed) laugh—all while limiting oneself to the usage of only twenty-six letters, ten numerals, and some odd punctuation marks. It’s high time we take books like Norwood much more seriously.         

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