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Friday, August 5, 2011

Norwood by Charles Portis

If you think that unintelligent people are by default just absolutely HI-larious, well then Norwood might just be the novel for you. The titular character is one Norwood Pratt, who, aggravated by living in close quarters with his irresponsible sister and her opinionated new husband, agrees to drive two cars to New York for Grady Fring the Kredit King. Norwood is pretty stupid, but eventually even he realizes that the cars are stolen and ditches them to begin the quixotic ramble across the country that is the heart of the book.

This journey is meant to be a picaresque tale of the absurd characters he meets along the way, and presumably the reader is meant to get some laughs from the situation. But unlike in True Grit or The Dog of the South, the humor here is too mean-spirited to be amusing. I didn't particularly enjoy Portis's depictions of stupid people doing stupid things and having stupid conversations with each other. These caricatures were still reliably realistic absurdities (Portis does have a gift for capturing the style and verbal tics of the American idiot) but they aren't given enough to do.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but that doesn't mean the two exist in a direct relation. Norwood is a brief novel, and the concomitant lack of detail weakens the story. The book is really only 150 pages and moves briskly from all the dialogue. The plot would have greatly benefited from more set pieces and extended scenes. As it is the only real action is that of conversation. Some of these conversations are mildly funny, such as Norwood's run-in with a poor freelance-writer living in a rat-trap New York apartment, but they do not a successful novel make.

Indeed, so brief is the novel that I almost felt sure that Amazon had sent me a misprint or something. The story ends so abruptly and strangely that it beggars belief. I enjoyed two of Mr. Portis's novels very much, but I can not recommend Norwood.

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