Norwood by Charles Portis

I got another surprise (readers of my personal blog will know what I mean by ‘another’) when I picked up Norwood by Charles Portis. I don’t know Portis, but I know he wrote True Grit. I haven’t read it, or seen any of the versions of the movie, (or realized that Kim was coincidentally going to review it the week before I posted this already written review) but I know enough about it to know cowboys are involved. For some reason, I imagined Norwood would somehow be related.

It isn’t.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Walter Kirn)

Well, perhaps just the tiniest bit. The main character wears a cowboy hat and wants to be a country singer, but that’s about it. It’s set around the Korean war. No ranches. That was a good thing for me, though. I didn’t really want to read about cowboys.

Norwood Pratt comes home from the Korean War to take care of his adult sister in Ralph, Texas after his father dies. His sister recovers herself shortly, and Norwood begins to feel trapped:

The job worked out too well. Money and position went to Vernell’s head. She stopped crying. Her health and posture improved. She even became something of a flirt. She grew daily more confident and assertive and at home she would drop the names of prominent Lions and Kiwanians. Norwood listened in cold silence as she brought home choice downtown gossip and made familiar references to undertakers and lawyers and Ford dealers. Norwood had nothing to counter with. No one you could quote traded at the Nipper station. Customers were local Negroes and high school kids, and out-of-state felons in flight from prosecution and other economy-minded transients, most of whom carried their own strange motor oil in the back seats, oil that was stranger and cheaper than anything even in the Nipper inventory. Some weeks, with her tips, Vernell made more money than Norwood. It was a terrible state of affairs and Norwood would not have believed that things were to become worse almost overnight.

Then with absolutely no warning Vernell married a disabled veteran named Bill Bird and brought him home to live in the little house on the highway. Bill Bird was an older man. He had drifted into Ralph for no very clear reason after being discharged from the VA hospital in Dallas. He took a room at the New Ralph Hotel, monthly rate, and passed his time in the coffee shop, at the corner table under the an, reading Pageant and Grit and pondering the graphs in U.S. News & World Report. Vernell took to Bill Bird at once. She liked his quiet, thoughtful air and his scholarship. She kept his cup filled with coffee and during lulls she would sit at this table and enjoy him. Bill Bird was at the same time attentive to Vernell in many little ways.

Norwood ends up taking off on an adventure when a questionable businessman hires him to drive a car to New York City, where Norwood hopes to get some money owed him by an old military buddy. Norwood jettisons the car when he finds out its stolen, and the adventures only increase from there…though at a leisurely pace.

Getting engaged to a woman on a bus, meeting the world’s second shortest midget, rescuing a college educated chicken, Norwood has an interesting journey around the country. It’s certainly a hell of a lot more engaging than my regular drives between Omaha and Denver.

Norwood was refreshingly different from what I expected. I found it unforced and plainspoken, but still interestingly odd. The reason for the drive behind the book seems a little elusive, but it’s still a pleasure to read anyway. Norwood certainly presents an interesting and vivid picture of a particular era in America.

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