Portis' Head

Your average Charles Portis character doesn't ask for much in the grand scheme of things. Norwood Pratt, the protagonist of Norwood, soon to be reissued by Overlook Press, hits the road in a quest for the $70 his Marine buddy Joe William Reese forgot to pay back. Raymond E. Midge, the remarkably finicky narrator of The Dog of the South, reprinted in May, aims to repossess his wife and the Ford Torino in which she absconded with her ex. Not necessarily in that order. Even before her departure, Norma had dropped some rather obvious hints--cheating on the algebra tests Ray gave her as preparation for his prospective career as a high school math teacher, for instance. A stickler about such things, Ray failed her every time. But then, if he had picked up on Norma's increasing emotional distance (e.g., the way she treated him like a customer, saying things like "I'll be right with you" when he tried to start a conversation), Ray wouldn't be a Charles Portis character.

Rather a caution, he steers his life by ludicrous codes (no smoking in the house and no record-playing after 9:00 p.m.), has attended multiple schools and amassed an enormous Civil War bookshelf without graduating, and has yet to do much of anything with his life. Also, he looks like a rat. But perhaps this is unfair: As Ray tells it, "I look more like a predatory bird than a rat but any person with small sharp features that are bunched in the center of his face can expect to be called a rat about three times a year." To his credit, it must be said that Ray abides these insults with good grace.

Norwood labors for the Nipper Independent Oil Co. Servicenter in Ralph, Texas, and cares for his possibly retarded sister ("a heavy, sleepy girl with bad posture...old enough to look after herself and quite large enough, but in many ways...a big baby"). But this isn't to say he's endowed with what you'd call a typical vision of how the world works: Riding his first New York subway, Norwood "was disappointed to find the tunnel so roomy. Only a very fat man could be trapped in it with a train coming." He wishes to be a country singer, though as yet he has managed neither to record nor even write a single song.

Both men are, in a word, no-accounts. Not to use the term in any judgmental sense, you understand; it's just the way they were made. And that's the nature of Charles Portis's world. A legend to devotees who cherish his five novels for their hilarious, deadpan whimsy, rambling dialogue, and homespun picaresque (Gringos and Masters of Atlantis are scheduled for rerelease next year; his most famous, True Grit, remains in print), Portis writes road novels that go nowhere and everywhere, crackpot odysseys into the depths of the American soul. Even his sentences don't head where they should, more often than not detouring into whacked-out, pointless precision. Norma's ex, the monkeylike Guy Dupree, has previously been arrested for threatening the president, even "challenging him to a fistfight on Pennsylvania Avenue." That really ticks Ray off for a number of reasons, none of them particularly reasonable: "This was pretty good coming from a person who had been kayoed in every beer joint in Little Rock, often within the first ten minutes of his arrival. I don't believe we've ever had a President, unless it was James Madison with his short arms, who couldn't have handled Dupree in a fair fight."


All of which probably explains why you've never heard of Charles Portis. The author's cultists and devotees, on the other hand, seem determined to correct this historical oversight. Humorist Roy Blount says that Norwood "should be in every home." Critic Ron Rosenbaum, whose New York Observer columns occasioned these reprints, calls him Twain's truest heir. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far; there's something to be said for Twain's unique ability to sell acute cultural insight to the masses. But Portis does shade Raymond Carver's dirty realism with DeLillo-style aphasic surrealism, and he mixed these paints before either of his more renowned contemporaries began to publish: Norwood dates to 1966, True Grit to 1968.

More to the point, Portis has burrowed into the American grain every bit as deeply as did his illustrious predecessor. Equally solicitous of small-time dreaming ("Yes, Grady is ready to lend you up to $950.00--IN THE PRIVACY OF YOUR OWN HOME!" boasts Grady Fring the Kredit King, the con man and all-around entrepreneur who launches Norwood on his voyage) and our national inability to connect (every single one of his characters is a crank, ready to air his particular quarrel with the universe), Portis stares into what Philip Roth once called "the indigenous American berserk,"and likes what he sees.

For Portis the trash culture his characters breathe (comic books, "educated" chickens, cheap motels) isn't a byproduct of media saturation, much less some "postmodern condition." It's the human condition, our birthright, a natural treasure: the world, and welcome to it. That's not to say things generally make much sense; his characters occasionally bump worldviews, pick themselves up, then go spinning away again. Here's Norwood sitting down for a meal with the writer who has moved into Joe William's apartment:


"One thing I won't eat is hog's head cheese. My sister Vernell, you can turn her loose with a spoon and she'll eat a pound of it before she gets up. Some people call it souse."

"Why do they call it that?"

"I don't know. You got to have a name for everything."

"Yes, I hadn't thought of that. Well, they're both good names. Tripe. Souse."


In a DeLillo novel (say, End Zone, the writer's most sunbaked work), that dislocation would be an emblem of dread, humanity quaking before its self-made doom. Portis, in contrast, sees this as the personalized nuttiness that represents the only ration of sanity the world deals out to us. Picked up by the same bread-truck driver who has given Norwood a ride, one hitchhiker informs both men: "I'm going on in to Indianapolis. My wife is in the hospital there. She doesn't have any sweat glands." Or consider the two old ladies Ray Midge meets up with in Honduras. One of them offers him the short stories she has written about a


"red-haired beauty from New Orleans who went to New York and got a job as a secretary on the second floor of the Empire State Building. There were mysterious thefts in the office and the red-haired girl solved the mystery with her psychic powers. The thief turned out to be the boss himself and the girl lost her job and went back to New Orleans where she got another job that she liked better, although it didn't pay as well."


(That closing dependent clause is the master's touch: a perfect anticlimax.)

And what's wrong with a touch of self-delusion? If we can't make ourselves the heroes of our own lives (even if those lives amount only to pulp), who will? At the conclusion of Dog of the South, Ray's lawyer asks him what everyone out there is looking for. "A good job of work to do," Ray answers. Love, another character says. No, the lawyer replies, it's really a place where we can get food cheap "on a regular basis." Whatever the answer, for Portis the cultivation of such trivia may be the only reality principle left us in a world saturated with adspeak and cheap goods.

Alone among his contemporaries, Portis looks the future in the eye and chuckles. And that good cheer keeps you coming back. Although his shaggy-dog novels refuse neat narrative arcs or real resolution, the taste for Portis isn't hard to acquire. (The exception to this narrative rambling is True Grit, whose orderliness probably accounts for its comparative success. Still, the aged narrator's fine, vinegary voice and hardheaded determination to catch her father's murderer make this book the more directed sister to some goof-off siblings.)

Though I slightly prefer the detailed whimsy of Dog of the South (and I haven't even gotten to Ray's traveling companion, blowhard dreamer Dr. Reo Symes, who must be read to be believed), many loyalists swear by Norwood. Either way, Portis is still at work and published fragments of an autobiography in The Atlantic this year. He could still write a conventional novel, and everyone who lugged home Infinite Jest might even embrace it. But how much fun would mass acclaim be, anyway?

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