Norwood, by Charles Portis
We first meet Norwood Pratt, a red-haired twenty-three-year-old from Ralph, Texas, as he’s being discharged from the Marines on account of family hardship. His father has just passed away, leaving his sister Vernell with no one to care for her. Vernell “was a heavy, sleepy girl with bad posture. She was old enough to look after herself and quite large enough, but in many ways she was a great big baby.”
Norwood leaves his California Marine base in such a rush, he forgets to collect the seventy dollars owed him by his friend, Joe William Reese.
Back in Texas, Norwood goes to work as an auto mechanic at the Nipper station, cleans up the family home, and helps his dull-witted sister through her depression and hooks her up with a waitressing job at the local diner. Norwood seems content enough in this life that’s going nowhere, until two things start to nag at him.
First, there’s the matter of that seventy dollars. Norwood doesn’t like leaving a debt uncollected. Second, his dullard sister has gone and married a petty, cranky middle-aged man, Bill Bird, who takes over the house Norwood spent so much time fixing up.
Now Norwood feels pressured by two forces: an uncomfortable one pushing him out of his own home, and a compulsive one driving him to collect that debt from Joe William, who is supposedly now living in New York City.
One slow evening at the local roller rink, Norwood runs into Grady Fring, a local grifter who sells used cars, health insurance, vending machines and earthworms. Fring offers Norwood a job: drive a used car up to a dealership in New York and he’ll get fifty bucks, plus expenses.
While the reader sees right away that Fring is not to be trusted, Norwood is naive and credulous and only slightly brighter than his sister. He accepts the job, figuring that once he gets the car up to New York, he’ll find Joe William and collect his seventy dollars.
When Norwood goes to pick up the car, Fring has a few surprises for him. I won’t give it away, but Norwood learns there’s more to this job than he’d been led to believe. He soon understands he’s gotten himself into a very bad situation, and being a simpleton, he just decides “to hell with it” and abandons after he’s gotten much deeper into it than any sensible person should.
Extricating oneself from a dangerous predicament would be the natural desire of any reasonable person in this situation, but most reasonable people would be scared of law enforcement on one side and Grady Fring and his creepy brother, Tilmon, on the other. Much of Norwood’s charm comes from his inability to conceive of the consequences of his actions. He simply does what he feels is right in the moment and rolls with whatever happens next. He doesn’t fear because he doesn’t even know he should be scared.
Norwood makes his way to New York, running into a few adventures and colorful characters along the way. Portis writes like a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain. He’s a brilliant comic writer with a flair for conveying character entirely through dialog. Most of the characters Norwood encounters on his journey to New York and back are as parochial and short-sighted as himself, and most of them are very funny.
While passing time at a bar in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Norwood befriends a former circus midget, Edmund B. Ratner, who’s been up all night drinking and is now hoping to make his way to Hollywood for television work. Ratner, a Brit, describes how his dad sold him to a circus manager named Curly at age seven:
My father, Solomon Ratner, was not an uneducated man but he was only a junior railway clerk and there were so many mouths to feed. And imagine, a midget in the house! Well, Curly came to town with his animal show–he toured all the fairs. He saw me at the station and asked me how I would like to wear a cowboy suit and ride an Irish wolfhound. He had a chimp named Bob doing it at the time. I directed him to my father and they came to terms. I never learned the price though I suspect it was around twenty pounds, perhaps more. Now understand, I don’t brood on it. Curly was like a second father to me, a very decent, humorous man. He came from good people. His mother was the oldest practical nurse in the United Kingdom. I saw her once, she looked like a mummy, poor thing. The pound was worth five dollars at that time."
When Ratner ate too much circus food and got too fat to ride the dog, Curly gave his job to a dwarf named Bumblebee Billy. All these years later, Ratner is still bitter about it, grousing that all of Bumblebee Billy’s “fingers are like toes.”
The good-natured Norwood tries to make him feel better.
“Them are regular little fingers you got.”
“Of course they are.”
“If you were out somewhere without anything else around, like a desert, and I was to start walking toward you I would walk right into you because I would think you were further off than what you were.”
“I’ve never heard it put quite that way. Well, it’s a matter of scale. I’m not a dwarf, you know.”
Before departing Jacksonville, Norwood’s pity leads him to rescue Joanne The Wonder Hen, the world’s only college-educated chicken, who’s stuck in a cage in the hot sun answering questions for five cents a pop. On the bus out of town, he offers the chicken to Ratner who, after his years in the circus, also has a strong sympathy for the caged performer.
“You ought to take her out to Hollywood with you,” Norwood suggests. “Get her in television.”
“I suspect I’ll have my hands full getting myself into television,” Ratner replies.
Norwood reminds him, “She’s plenty smart for a chicken.”
“There’s no question about it,” Ratner agrees. “I’m sure a good agent could get her something. Perhaps some small role in an Erskine Caldwell film.”
Part of the charm of the book is the characters' acceptance of who they are and of what the world has to offer them. When Norwood finally tracks down Joe William, he tells Joe he’s got a new girlfriend:
“I met her a couple of days ago. We’re thinking about getting married when we get home.”
“Boy, that was fast work. What did you do, pick her up on a bus?”
“Well sure, bring her on.”
“Is there some special place you’re supposed to get a wife?”
“No, I guess they’re just wherever you find ‘em. Buses, drugstores, VFW huts. Don’t be so touchy.”
The only person in the book who seems displeased with her lot is Joe William Reese’s mother. Coming from a wealthy Tennessee family, she married the wrong man and wound up on a tiny farm in rural Arkansas with an aging mother, a salt-of-the-earth husband and a not-too-bright son.
Here’s a description of her at the fish fry that everyone else can enjoy, but that she with her pride and lofty expectations cannot:
Mrs. Reese did not come outside until the sun was behind the trees because of her skin. She ate some coleslaw and went about being hospitable in her distant way. There were dark pouches under her eyes which an indoor existence and an uncommon amount of sleep did not help much. Things had not worked out well for her. The young planter she thought she was marrying turned out to be a farmer. Her mother got on her nerves. Instead of the gentle Lew Ayers doctor son she had counted on, the Lord had given her a poolroom clown. She claimed descent from the usurper Cromwell and she read a long paper on her connections at a gathering of Confederate Daughters, all but emptying the ballroom of the Albert Pike Hotel in Little Rock. This was no small feat considering the tolerance level of a group who had sat unprotesting through two days of odes and diaries and recipes for the favorite dishes of General Pat Cleburne.
Norwood is essentially a picaresque novel, with a classically naive and non-judgmental main character wandering into a series of comic situations populated by a set of even more interesting comic characters. Portis, the author, had a career in journalism before he started writing novels, and it shows. He has a good eye for detail, a good ear for the way people actually speak, and wastes no words in conveying the rich feel of the mid-twentieth-century rural South. I look forward to reading more of his work.