Charles Portis’ first novel, “Norwood,” was published in the summer of 1966. Fifty years later, a near-capacity crowd would gather at South on Main to celebrate the golden anniversary of this beloved book, and to acknowledge its much admired Arkansawyer author.
Jay Jennings, Senior Editor at the Oxford American magazine and editor of the 2012 collection of Portis’ short works, “Escape Velocity,” read from the first chapter of “Norwood,” an opening full of rich descriptions that describes the setting and starts to develop many of the novel’s characters.
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Fred Newman, sound effects wizard of “Prairie Home Companion” fame, then had the audience all to himself, recounting childhood memories of the challenges of dyslexia and describing how understanding sound helped him see order in things he had previously been unable to see. Newman provided auditory accents throughout the whole evening, never leaving the stage, and at one point, taught the entire audience how to make the sound of water dripping from a roof into a full bucket.
Among the evening’s other highlights: Harrison Scott Key, Oxford American contributor and author of “The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir” (not to be confused with Edmund B. Ratner, “the world’s smallest perfect man”) read his short creative nonfiction piece about current bus culture, “Fifty Shades of Greyhound,” which paired nicely with “Norwood,” given the amount and the significance of time Norwood Pratt spends on the bus.
The evening’s program took a musical turn toward the lovely, as Grammy and Americana Music Association award nominee Tift Merritt performed two of her own songs accompanied by her own guitar, highlighting the importance of music in the novel—and, of course, Norwood Pratt’s own musical ambitions to appear on KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.
Key and Merritt teamed up at one point to give a dramatic reading of a conversation between Bill Bird and Varnell Pratt about a Grit Magazine article about a dog that could play “Springtime in the Rockies” on the harmonica, emphasizing Portis’ masterful rhythm in his dialogue scenes. Fred Newman quickly followed this up by playing that very song on the harmonica complete with intermittent barks, yelps, and other dog sounds.
Writer, humorist, and radio personality Roy Blount Jr. took the stage with his glasses placed firmly on his forehead—as they often are when he reads in public—and read excerpts from his own work, “Crackers,” and elicited one of the night’s biggest laughs prior to reading from “Norwood,” stating “I’ve never been able to do justice to a reading of “Norwood,” and here, I will give you an example of that right now.”
For the penultimate performance of the night, Merritt returned to perform the Kitty Wells classic and Rita Lee Chipman’s favorite song in the book, “Making Believe.” Merritt’s simple chords and haunting voice were a perfect mix, providing even more insight to one of the book’s main characters.
The 50th Anniversary celebration of Portis’ “Norwood” is precisely the type of unique, multifaceted, Southern-focused programming that many of us have hoped to see from the partnership between The Oxford American and South on Main. Hats off to the OA and their staff for having the vision to organize and promote an event of this type and caliber, to South on Main’s staff for facilitating the event so smoothly,and to sound engineer Jonathan Chandler, whose collective efforts allowed the crowd to remain mesmerized by the magical things that were happening on stage. I overheard the word “triumph” as the crowd was leaving, and anyone who was paying attention would be hard-pressed to disagree. May we witness more such triumphs in the future.