Charles Portis’s first novel, Norwood, is a comic masterpiece. Have you read it? I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially if you’re trying to figure out which of Portis’s five novels to start with. If this rollicking road trip novel can be said to be about anything, I’d have to say it’s about personal growth and the process of expanding one’s worldview. Specifically, this is a story about a naïve, sheltered hillbilly from Arkansas broadening his awareness by experiencing alien cultures and a variety of people during a trip from Arkansas to New York City and back. The essential scene comes on pages 100-101, after a self-proclaimed New York Jew invites Norwood into his Lower East Side apartment for a cheap lunch of potted meat.
[The Jewish man said,] “This stuff is cheap but it’s very nutritious.” He picked up the can and read from it. “Listen to this: ‘beef tripe, beef hearts, beef, pork, salt, vinegar, flavoring, sugar and sodium nitrate.’ Do you know what tripe is?”
“It’s the gut part.” [said Norwood.]
“That’s what I thought. I suspected it was something like that.”
“It’s all meat. Meat is meat. Have you ever eat any squirrel brains?”
“No, how are they?”
“About like calf brains. They’re not bad if you don’t think about it. The bad part is cracking them little skulls open. 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.”
On the surface, this scene is a comic exchange between two men from very different parts of the country. It’s a clash of cultures: these guys are as fascinated by each other and their differences as they are eager to share information about the worlds in which they were raised. Fortunately, they sense these vast differences and strive for understanding. Norwood discusses squirrel brains—a rural Arkansas delicacy—while the New Yorker discusses the lifeless meat sold in cans in Manhattan bodegas. They trade names for the same item, because few things represent cultural differences more than the names we assign to things, and here they are discussing gastronomical terms.
In the context of the book with its large cast of characters, the list of ingredients becomes a commentary on the eclectic nature of the human race and, in a narrower sense, a symbol of the oddballs that Norwood encounters on his trip. Flavoring can be said to be each person’s character, including Norwood’s, though writing that makes it sound like a weaker symbol than it is.
When Norwood says “You got to have a name for everything,” what he is also saying is “What’s in a name?” He’s implying that sometimes labels are hollow since they don’t always impart additional information, or give access to a person or thing’s essential core; it’s just an odd facet of human nature to assign labels.
To me, the lines “Well, they’re both good names. Tripe. Souse,” mean: we’re all the same underneath. It’s the other character—who can be said to represent all the characters Norwood encounters, as well as all the book’s culture clashes in general—agreeing with Norwood that sometimes a name means absolutely nothing: Jew, hillbilly, head cheese, souse. Whatever.
When Norwood tells him, “It’s all meat. Meat is meat,” it seems Portis is telling readers that people are people, no matter what you call them. We’re meat, we’re matter, and names don’t even matter. A person by any title is a secondary distinction from the primary truth of our universal similarities, our shared traits. We’re all the same when you look at us close enough, despite our different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, or upbringings. Portis is imparting a deep message, yet at the same time, he also just seems to be riffing on a goofy idea and having fun. He’s got us reading about potted meat and calf brains. That’s hilarious. Everything in this book is hilarious. Without question, Norwood is one of my favorite books of all time, partly because it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read or will read. It’s strange. It’s deadpan. It’s so compressed that it hits you like a blast from a hose, and before you know it, it’s over. There’s nothing like it.