Southport, A Story of Second Chances
Set in the historic Southport waterfront area of North Carolina, Southport is a journey through loss, betrayal and pain into redemption and second changes. It is the road to the kind of love that saves a life and to the joy that's still there even when all seems lost.
Published: Sep. 5, 2009
By Buck Paysour, Greensboro News & Record, May 17, 1998
Ed Norvell's novel, "Southport," reminds me of a limited-edition print I can see as I write this review.
The original watercolor of the print was painted by High Point's Larry Benner and is entitled "Southport at 5:30 a.m." It depicts the waterfront at Southport, a charming North Carolina fishing village. But the painting and the novel share more than a name.
Both create a mood. In the painting, the rustic Southport waterfront rises out of early morning mists, a scene that is at once both beautiful and foreboding. When you look at Benner's painting, it is as if you are actually standing in Southport at dawn.
Something similar happens when you read parts of Norvell's novel. You feel you are walking Southport's street, that you are visiting the town's homes and that you are talking to its residents.
Or when you read other pages, you fantasize that you have boarded a boat to visit nearby Bald Head Island or to fish the sheltered waters of the Cape Fear River or trawl for shrimp in the vast Atlantic Ocean off the town.
Set in the '60's and '70's, "Southport" is written from the viewpoint of Todd Field who flees from his native Duplin County in inland eastern North Carolina to Southport to escape a drunken and abusive father. In Southport, Todd is informally adopted by the captain of a sports-fishing charter boat and the fisherman's wife. The captain gives Todd a job on the boat.
Todd is happier in his new life than he was in his old one. Yet it soon becomes clear that he cannot escape all the ugly realities of life—not even in a place as enchanting as Southport.
He meets a "summer girl" from Raleigh with whom he falls in love and she with him. But her father, a rich and powerful lobbyist, thinks Todd is not good enough for her, and she eventually takes her father's side.
Because of his disillusionment, Todd temporarily turns to drugs and alcohol and a life that is largely purposeless.
The scene shifts temporarily to Florida where Todd works on a shrimp trawler. The trawler is rammed by a freighter, killing everybody aboard the trawler except for Todd and one other crew member. That is when Todd, as the novel's subtitle suggest, begins to understand that he has been given a second chance in life.
He returns to Southport to begin still another new life. But another boating accident changes his life dramatically. Still the accident proves to be a blessing in disguise.
The tale that Norvell spins is somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and the prose is suggestive of Ernest Hemingway's.
The writing style is taut, yet wonderfully descriptive.
Just listen to this passage:
"The water moved like liquid silver glazed by the midday sun as the skiff meandered through the marsh creek behind Bald Head Island. Birds cried out, and the shimmering grass was alive with the sound of crickets, cicadas, and insects, singing praise to the day. The only man-made sound was the low hum of the outboard motor mounted in a well in the middles of Mitch's flat-bottomed boat. I could smell the salty air, the gasoline and the odor of the marsh mud."
Anyone who has ever fished the marsh creeks of eastern North Carolina will recognize this scene and others that Norvell portrays.
But you don't have to like fishing to enjoy "Southport." Anyone who just loves the water (and who doesn't?) or anybody who just enjoys a good story should like this novel.
Norvell is an attorney in Salisbury, and "Southport" is his first published novel. Here's hoping that it won't be his last because it is the kind of book you are reluctant to put down even after you have finished it.
Because of that, I plan to place the novel in an easy-to-reach place so I can find it to read again and again on winter days that are too frigid for fishing.
That will enable me to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and feel of eastern North Carolina outdoors—my favorite place on earth—at least in my reveries.
Buck Paysour is a retired News & record columnist and author of three books on North Carolina freshwater and brackish-water fishing. He now writes a regular freelance fishing column for ESPN magazine.
"Southport...is the kind of book you are reluctant to put down even after you have finished it."