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Norwood was Charles Portis’s first novel, published in 1966, followed a couple years later by True Grit . Both novels are infused with Portis’s deadpan humor, but only the first is typically represented as a “comic novel.” A novel in which the main character rescues Joann the College-Educated Chicken from her vending-machine contraption, befriends an aggrieved midget who once was billed as the World’s Most Perfect Little Man, and foils the plans of Grady Bing the Kredit King will tend to get labeled “comic.” True Grit is quite funny also, but in a more subtle way—this comes across much more in the book’s prose than in either of the film versions. Its humor is often generated by the astounding seriousness and determination of the Mattie Ross character, but this is the very feature of the book that also takes us into recognizably weighty subjects, such as vengeance, heroism, judgment, and grace. We wind up wondering about Mattie’s very soul, whereas we sometimes are allowed to forget that Norwood has any sort of third dimension to his character.

Indeed, what strikes one is how different the two books are, both in terms of the voices Portis has taken on, and in terms of the worlds he has brought to life. In the latter, we get the Western frontier of the early 1880s, of hanging judges, gritty marshals, law-talk, and former Confederate soldiers, as remembered years afterwards by the starchy but still-fiesty Mattie, and in the former, we get a King of the Road America of the early 1960s, of billboards, roller-domes, buses, Vienna Sausages, and budget diners, filled to its styrofoam brim with advertising copy, and all seen through the straightforward eyes of Norwood Pratt, honest resident of Ralph, Texas, who has to make a road-trip-adventure to NYC and back.

My hypothesis, however, is that the two books function as a pair. What links them is first, the evocation of the culture of a particular area—West Arkansas (True Grit) and the “Ark-La-Tex” intersection (Norwood), which pretty much make up one area, and one that Portis himself hails from—, and second, the highlighting of language . What immediately stands out about True Grit , which both films cannot but convey, is that it represents the speech of the western characters as rather formal and vocabulary-rich. It sounds more like the letters that are read in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary than what we hear in the typical Western, and we immediately accept that this was probably more the way it was. (Any experts out there who know?) There is a simplicity and directness about the way the characters of True Grit talk, but it is never crude, it never dispenses with clarity, and it will slip into more ornate expressions when it seems appropriate. There is no ostentatious informality, no wearing of Twain-isms on one’s sleeve, even by the lowest-down characters like Chaney and Pepper.

So it is all the more shocking to encounter in Norwood , in the mouths of characters hailing from pretty much the same area, but also from all across America, a style of address reduced to utter simplicity, even while it still seems entirely realistic, accurate, and still able to convey the humanity (and regional distinctions) of the characters who utilize it. Portis makes fairly clear what has flattened the language of these people: American mass culture, delivered via the highway, the radio, comic books, news magazines, and advertisement. In one bizarre instance, the novel actually says that a speech bubble appeared above Norwood’s head containing an explanation point!  That is not just zany authorial fireworks, a la Sterne or Vonnegut, employed to keep the comedy cooking, but a comment upon what really goes on in Norwood Pratt’s mind, a character who’s first extended conversation with his fiancé (whom he has met and courted on a Trailways bus) is a debate about comic books and Superman.

And yet, not a few of these people caught up in the pulpy mass of the low-budget anywhere-in-America culture are good people: Norwood Pratt may get fooled for a time, but eventually his Marines-bred sense of rectitude and manliness, connected to a certain Christian element, wins the day. And he is by no means stupid, even if his language is stunted. As in several of Portis’s novels, some of this innate virtue is traced to a rural Southern upbringing, but one of the novel’s more interesting scenes dwells upon the friendship and charity shown the lost-in-the-big-anonymous-city Norwood by a simple and fairly poor NYC Jew.

In any case, Norwood’s Ark-La-Tx and Southern culture is not dissolved by the mass culture it at times seems immersed in and saturated by, and Portis underlines the fact that the rural South and West has developed its own pop institutions like the Grand Ol’ Opry. The distinctly American sorts of moral rot Portis displays on the Interstate, in the Big Apple, and in the mass culture generally, never threaten to overthrow Norwood’s character nor his regional distinctiveness. Compared to him, NYC comes off looking low.

Norwood offers much more to think about, particularly on the topic of charity and trust, and whether you agree or not that it invites the comparison with True Grit that I’ve suggested, I hope this brief discussion has shown that it’s more than just brilliantly executed humor. Portis is thinking in these novels about where the Southern/Western American character comes from, how it has become debased, and what remains attractive about it. He is thinking about our language, and what it tells us about ourselves. Donna Tartt’s introduction to the now-back-in-print True Grit reminds us that the novel was powerful enough to be regarded as a contemporary classic in the early 70s, even to the extent of being assigned by some high-school English teachers, prior to its being largely forgotten until the recent film. I agree that it certainly belongs to any just canon of American 20th-century novels, but I venture to suggest that Norwood might deserve a place there as well.

Anyhow, it’s a lot of fun.

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