Mass-Market Marathon

A Deadpan Comedy by the Author of True Grit
Reading between the lines.
Aug. 7 2013 11:30 AM

Mass-Market Marathon

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A Charles Portis novel can clear your sinuses like a shot of whiskey.

Until today, I’d read substantially more words about how underappreciated Charles Portis is than I’d read actual words by Charles Portis. Best known these days as the author of True Grit, Portis, who’s nearing 80, is a writer’s writer, a guy whose career other novelists and critics are constantly trying to resurrect. (The splashiest such piece was Ed Park’s 7,000-word paean to Portis in the Believer.) After reading his short, extremely funny 1966 novel Norwood this morning, I finally understand why. Going All the Way was a good story of tortured mid-century manhood, but it sure clogged up my head. Norwood, like a belt of whiskey, cleared my sinuses right up.

Norwood Pratt is a simple feller, a wannabe troubadour from Ralph, Texas, who goes on an epic journey across America and winds up with a girlfriend, an oracular chicken, and a real story to tell. The novel begins with Norwood, discharged from the Army, being robbed blind by a family he meets on the bus back from Camp Pendleton, and Norwood never really gets less gullible. It’s just that eventually he runs into some people who aren’t trying to take advantage of him: Rita Lee, who falls for him almost immediately; Edmund, a British midget who’s just quit the USO; Joe William, who has every intention of paying Norwood the $70 he owes him.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

130806_BOOKS_NORWOOD

If Going All the Way was all dark neurosis, Norwood is as sunny and carefree as can be; its characters never get that upset when something goes wrong. When the previous novel’s Sonny couldn’t get a girl to bed with him, he obsessed about it for pages; when Norwood finds that the beatnik he’s seeing in the East Village just isn’t that interested, even though she’s reading The Prophet to him—“she fed him and seemed to welcome his company but nothing ever got off the ground in the way of funny business”—Norwood shrugs, hops on the bus, and heads out of town.

That section of Norwood in New York might be the most perfectly deadpan fish-out-of-water comedy I’ve ever read; it lasts 24 pages but I would’ve read it for 240. But the book’s guiding spirit seems to be one of reserve; Norwood doesn’t say much, and neither does Portis. A lot happens to Norwood in the book’s 176 pages; he gets taken, gets used, falls in love, rescues that fortune-telling chicken from the sideshow, and hunts down the $70 Joe William owes him. Portis doesn’t waste a lot of time on description or Norwood’s internal struggle; that leaves plenty of space for scenes like the three-page debate Norwood gets in with his sister Vernell and hated brother-in-law Bill Bird about whether Norwood threw a sausage at Bill:

“Did you throw this, Norwood?”
“What is it, Bill?”
“You know what it is. It’s a sausage.”
“I wondered what that was,” said Norwood. “I saw an arm come in the back door there and chunk something acrost the room. I thought maybe there was a note on it.”
Bill Bird called into the bedroom. “Vernell, come in here a minute. I want you. Norwood’s throwing food.”
Vernell came in and looked at Bill Bird’s naked torso. “Goodness, Bill, put on some clothes. Norwood’s trying to eat his supper.”
“Look at this,” said Bill Bird.
“That’s a sausage,” she said.
“I know what it is. He threw it at me in the bathroom.”
“What for? What would he want to throw a sausage for?”
“I don’t know, Vernell. It’s beyond me. I do know you could very easily put someone’s eye out like that.”
She gave a little laugh. “I don’t think you could put anybody’s eye out with a sausage.” Then she saw from Bill Bird’s face that this was not the ticket. She turned to Norwood. “What made you want to do it, bubba?”
Norwood went on eating. “You two would drive anybody crazy,” he said. “Going on all night about a sausage.”

The cover of my copy is not the original mass-market cover from 1968, a perfect image of a tattoo that would not look at all out of place on a paperback today. This edition is a movie tie-in—always a fertile genre for the mass-market—for a 1970 film of Norwood starring Glen Campbell and Kim Darby, with Dom Deluise as Bill Bird, “and introducing Joe Namath.” (You can stream it for free if you have Amazon Prime.) The cover is a charming shot of Campbell and Darby, both of whom had appeared the year before in the original movie adaptation of True Grit. It promised a real sweet romance to anyone who found it on the spinner rack, though it may not have been entirely satisfying to whoever bought it on that promise. But I love how unsentimental it is. This is a book where the hero, asked about his girl, replies not with words of adoration but by explaining, “I think she’s decided I’m about as good as she’s going to do.”

Once I finish the book, I’m up to 980 pages on the big scoreboard we’ve taped up to the wall of the rental house. My daughter, on the other hand, has barreled past 2,000. At this point my only hope of catching up is if she runs out of books. (I’ve already informed her that she does not get credit for re-reading something she’s already read here at the beach.) I have no hope of reading all 20-plus of my mass-market paperbacks, but there’s a legitimate possibility she’ll finish all 25 of her library books. Fingers crossed!

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