Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Discovering Charles Portis (Again)

In one way, things are going according to plan in my attempt to not buy any books for a while, in the sense that I haven't bought any books for a while. ("A while" would usually be defined as three or four days -- I think I have an anxiety/consumerism problem, the latter half of the problem thankfully limited mostly to books rather than, say, large household appliances -- so the fact that it's been almost a month is a small miracle.)

In terms of the specific reading list that I drew up, though, my path has been predictably redesigned. In fact, long story short, I'm reading Pride and Prejudice and then The Varieties of Religious Experience, and then I'm heading to the bookstore for a liberating purchase or two.

I got sidetracked from my list in the best way possible -- by discovering a new writer (new to me, I mean) who I love. Several years ago, when Charles Portis' novels were reissued, there were appreciations written about his status as a beloved cult author, and I remember reading a particularly eye-catching rave for his debut, Norwood. It's been on my shelf for a few years, and a recent post about Portis over at Paper Cuts inspired me to finally get around to reading it. So I guess it's not that Portis is new to me, I've known about him for a few years. It's the actual work that's new.

Born in Arkansas, now 73 and famously reclusive, Portis published Norwood when he was 32, and he's written four more novels since, the last one appearing in 1991.

In 2003, in the first issue of The Believer, Ed Park wrote a long essay praising Portis. I've only read the first part of it, because I want to read the rest after I've gotten through all the novels, which shouldn't be too long from now. Here's an excerpt from early on in Park's piece:
(Portis) left for New York in 1960, and became a general assignment reporter at the now defunct New York Herald-Tribune, working out of what has to be one of the more formidable newsroom incubators in history—his comrades included Tom Wolfe (who would later dub him the "original laconic cutup") and future Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham. Norwood's titular ex-Marine, after a fruitless few days in Gotham, saw it as "the hateful town," and Portis himself had once suggested (in response to an aspersion against Arkansas in the pages of Time), that Manhattan be buried in turnip greens...
Norwood is only 190 pages long -- quick pages, too -- and if you read books for big endings, it's not for you. It's all about the ride, literally and figuratively. Norwood drives from Texas to New York on an errand for a shady character, and as the back of the book says, "By the time he returns home to Ralph, Texas, Norwood has met his true love, Rita Lee...befriended Edmund B. Ratner, the second shortest midget in show business...and helped Joann, 'the chicken with a college education,' realize her true potential in life."

All true.

I'll leave you with an excerpt that's indicative of the novel in one way -- it features snappy, funny dialogue, and the book is crammed full of that. The way it's not indicative is that this dialogue takes place between Norwood and a stranger in a costume. Given my fascination with mascots, I just figured this was the most appropriate choice:
(Norwood) walked up as far as Fifty-ninth Street, where things began to peter out, then came back. There was a man in a Mr. Peanut outfit in front of the Planters place but he was not giving out sample nuts, he was just walking back and forth. The Mr. Peanut casing looked hot. It looked thick enough to give protection against small arms fire.

"Do they pay you by the hour or what?" Norwood said to the monocled peanut face.

"Yeah, by the hour," said a wary, muffled voice inside.

"I bet that suit is heavy."

"It's not all that heavy. I just started this morning."

"How much do you get a hour?"

"You ask a lot of questions, don't you?"

"Do you take the suit home with you?"

"No, I put it on down here. At the shop."

"The one in Dallas gives out free nuts."

"I don't know anything about that. They didn't say anything to me about it."

"He don't give you many, just two or three cashews."

"I don't know anything about that. I work at the post office at night."

"Well, I'll see you sometime, Mr. Peanut. You take it easy."

"Okay. You too."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that short bit from Norwood and helping me remember again in detail why all his books are so priceless. Truly incomparably great comic dialogue.

7:36 PM  

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