Norwood (1966)

by Charles Portis

Norwood, the first novel by the author who became known for True Grit, introduced Charles Portis's typical subject matter: small-town Southern characters go on a journey and have wacky adventures along the way.

When his father dies, Norwood Pratt receives a discharge from the Marines to return home to Ralph, Texas, because his sister Vernell is not quite fit to care for herself. Norwood resumes his old job at a service station and aspires to be a country singer. Vernell finds a husband who moves into the Pratt home and annoys Norwood. Since an ex-Marine friend living in New York still owes him $70, Norwood is easy prey for a con man's enlisting him to transport two cars to New York. The naive Norwood doesn't realize the cars are hot.

That background sets up what little plot there is in Norwood, which is mostly a deadpan account of Norwood's trip from and back to Ralph via car, train, and bus, and the bizarre characters he meets on the way. These include a former circus midget who ballooned into "the world's smallest perfect fat man"; an "educated" chicken that Norwood liberates from a penny arcade; and Norwood's true love, Rita Lee, whom he meets on the Trailways bus.

Norwood is a romp of comic dialogue and observations about America in the '50s. It is good-natured comedy. As odd as his characters are, Portis doesn't present them for ridicule. Norwood isn't heroic, but he is honorable, and there is unpretentious wisdom in many of his goofy lines. Many books are more profound than Norwood, but few will stay so vivid long after you finish.


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