Lars Guthrie's Reviews > Norwood

Norwood by Charles Portis
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Jan 29, 11

Read in January, 2010

This is the best one to read if you only read one other Portis novel besides ‘True Grit.’ Everyone should read ‘True Grit.’

In a charming first novel, Portis establishes his mastery of language, in particular the Texarkana vernacular, of well-chosen detail that goes beyond apparent mundane triviality and really captures the American ambience as well as the human condition, and of pitch-perfect dialogue.

Norwood Pratt—another one of Portis’s strengths is names—is the title character, a poor, ignorant redneck who’s also a philosopher and philanthropist. After getting a hardship discharge from the Marines when his daddy dies in the early 1960s, the disappointed Norwood returns to his lackluster life in Ralph, Texas, as a Nipper gas station attendant and caretaker for his sister Vernell, whose lack of get-up-and-go is either the result of social and cognitive impairment or just plain old absence of motivation.

Norwood finds some purpose in sprucing up the dilapidated family property and getting his sister working, but his life is empty until a shady entrepreneur—Grady Fring the Kredit King—employs him to transport some automobiles of shady provenance—they turn out to be stolen—to New York. Norwood jumps at the opportunity to collect on a seventy dollar loan from a Marine friend who’s supposed to be in Gotham, and maybe the chance to become a country music star.

For Portis, it’s an excuse to dive into what will become his trademark, a rambling and disjointed Odyssey stuffed with witty, sly, homespun observation that manages to be at once sardonic and sympathetic. Echoes of Mark Twain and other great American writers.

In New York, Norwood finds his service buddy has gone back south. On a homeward-bound Trailways bus, he runs into a “pretty little girl with short black hair and bangs and bejeweled harlequin glasses.” Of course he falls in love with Rita Lee.

She isn’t his only traveling companion. There’s also Edmund B. Ratner, a British midget, the second shortest in show business and ‘the world's smallest perfect fat man.’ Not to mention Joann, ‘the Wonder Hen, the College Educated Chicken,’ rescued by Norwood from a penny arcade. These delightful oddballs compose only the core of Portis’s eccentric and motley cast.

‘Norwood,’ like all of Portis’s work (except‘True Grit’) is hardly earthshaking. But it’s still one heck of a novel.
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